I often think of 1:1 conversations the same way I do with text messages, where the visual patterns of back and forth messages with colors and emoji give hints to how the conversation is going. Why not apply this idea to 1:1s and and visualize them the same way? That is the idea behind this post.
I think about 1:1s with my team a lot. What did we talk about? Where were there dips in the conversation? Who talked the most/least? Were we both engaged? When we end our call (usually over Zoom nowadays), I step back and think about the flow of the conversation. Sometimes you're doing all of the talking, other times the other party is doing all of the talking, and sometimes it's a well-balanced conversation where there is a good mix. In the 30-60 minutes usually set aside for these meetings you may also find the conversation shifting its flow from one format to another.
Knowing when to steer this flow of conversation can help lead to a more engaging 1:1 with peers, managers, and direct reports. In this post I'll write about some observations of the structure of 1:1s grouped into three archetypes that I have encountered over my career and some thoughts on how to make the most of that time.
The status report
The first of the three types of 1:1 flows is a status report. When someone in the call has something to report on, a status or some news about a project, the conversation tends to be one-sided. This also happens sometimes when there's not much else to talk about: for new managers or very junior folks this is often a safe topic to spend some time on.
It's perfectly okay for these style of 1:1s to happen. Sometimes understanding where a project is will help you unblock others or make it easier for you to communicate up and out the status. However, if they become the norm it's worth thinking about some ways to steer the conversation away from execution and project status. If you're a manager that attends standups or someone more senior, chances are this information is redundant and can be collected elsewhere.
There are some ways to steer the conversation in a new direction without taking a complete 180-degree turn that may make the 1:1s more engaging. Try asking:
- What about the project feels like it's going/not going well?
- Do you think you're working on the right/most important thing right now?
- Are you learning anything new with this current iteration?
- What about the task you're working on is interesting to you or you want to talk about?
The comms 1:1
Like the status report, the comms 1:1 is generally a one-sided conversation where the manager or more senior person is delivering a status or an announcement to the other attendee. For this archetype, I assume you are the person delivering the comms 1:1 topic.
As a manager it's your job to provide context and help connect direct reports' work to the bigger picture. A 1:1 is a great place to reinforce these ideas, and can often lead to great conversations about growth opportunities and goals.
If you find that these conversations tend to be too one-sided too often, try changing the way you deliver the comms to ask how it affects your direct report. Ask things like:
- How does this change how you're thinking about what you're working on?
- Do you agree with this direction/change?
- Where do you think your skillset fits into this?
The last archetype is one that I personally enjoy the most. For the observant reader, you might have picked up that my recommendations for steering the conversation in the previous two attempt to move the flow into one resembling a volley. In this type of 1:1 the two parties are taking about equal amounts of conversation real estate and having an engaged conversation.
In these 1:1s questions are being asked in both directions and a dialogue is evolving. Sometimes there's an agenda and sometimes not. For me, these are times where you're building rapport, trust, and getting to know one another.
The only recommendations I have for 1:1s that follow this flow is to stick to one or two topics. I know I have a tendency to get excited and let the conversation go where ever it wants, and sometimes that's okay, but if you end your meeting often not feeling like you've covered a meaningful topic ask yourself:
- Why was this conversation so engaging? Can I steer this toward a growth/goal setting opportunity?
- Is there a specific detail about this topic that can be highlighted in other areas that could generate the same kind of excitement as this one?
- How am I biasing this conversation? Was the energy shared equally, or was one person in the conversation bringing most of it while the other was just going along with it.
All 1:1 meetings are different and rarely go as expected, and that's kind of the fun of them! The structure and cadence of a 1:1 is dependent on so many factors and at the end of the day we're all complex creatures just trying to get by and feel like we're making good use of our time. I hope that if you're someone that attends 1:1s you take a moment to pause and reflect on how you use yours.