Effective 1 on 1 meetings can seem like an albino peacock at some companies: rarely seen, but potentially awesome.
That's not how it should be. One on one meetings should be something you look forward to.
Done well, effective 1 on 1 meetings are an opportunity for:
- Rapport building
- And talking about all the things important to you that seem to always slip your mind.
They're a chance for you and your manager to strengthen your working relationship, and get out of the day-to-day task grind.
Despite this, 1 on 1 meetings are too often wasted.... or don't happen at all. This robs you and your teammates the opportunity to perform at their best at work each day.
What can you do about it?
The final responsibility falls on your manager to make these meetings great. However, there are many things you can do to improve your own 1 on 1s.
Through your efforts, you can improve the quality of your 1 on 1s while helping your manager better recognize their value in the process.
How to have effective 1 on 1 meetings with your manager
Most managers really do care about their people. They're much more unaware and overwhelmed than evil.
If you do have a toxic manager like Dilbert's that doesn't care enough to invest in 1 on 1s with you, it's time to look for another job. For everyone else, below are 7 tips that can help you improve the quality of your 1 on 1 meetings with just a few tweaks:
Table of Contents
- How to have effective 1 on 1 meetings with your manager:
- Make the most of 1 on 1 meetings with your manager (further reading)
1) Don't let them cancel. Ask to reschedule.
One of the biggest sins preventing you and your manager from having effective 1 on 1 meetings is frequently canceling them.
It's hard to get into a good rhythm if you go weeks (or months) without talking. Even worse, it can cause a backup of issues to discuss that get worse as they go unaddressed.
No one likes seeing a problem coming and then have to watch it blow up. However, you probably see problems coming before your manager does. Without a 1 on 1 meeting, you may not get a chance to talk about it before it's too late.
Unfortunately, when 1 on 1 meetings get canceled often, any hope of the meetings being effective goes out the window. Why put effort into a meeting that you don't expect will happen?
Don't let them off the hook.
It's hard to say no to your manager when they come to you asking to cancel your 1 on 1 meeting. They probably came to you with a good reason. And they are your manager, after all. It's hard to say no to them for anything they ask.
Instead, next time they ask to cancel, try something like this:
"Okay. I understand you have something pressing, and these meetings are important to me. When can we reschedule our 1 on 1 meeting to?"
A sentence like this has 3 key advantages related to persuasion:
- Reciprocity: You're agreeing to what they want, and immediately set them up to then feel obligated to return the favor by rescheduling in exchange for not meeting now.
- And, not but: By framing your response using "and" instead of "but", you build on the discussion instead of feeling like you're disagreeing.
- Immediacy: By immediately requesting to schedule a different time you ensure they don't forget about it.
To really be a pro with this tactic, be prepared to suggest new times. If they asked in person, bring up your calendar right on your phone. If they asked over email, look at your calendars and try to book a time you see that works.
The easier you make it for your manager to say yes, the more likely you are to avoid canceled 1 on 1 meetings.
Every other tip we have below for you on how to have effective 1 on 1 meetings is focused on you regularly having these meetings. It all starts with finding a way to get your manager to stick to them, and this approach can help make sure they happen.
If you're a manager interested in learning more about the value of regular one on ones, and the dangers of canceling, read Why You Should Never Cancel Your One-on-Ones (and the only good reason to).
2) Avoid status updates.
When a manager or team member says they don't see the value of effective 1 on 1 meetings, it's a virtual certainty they spend most of the meeting talking about projects and status updates. That's a huge waste.
For your manager, it can be so tempting: they finally have a chance in an otherwise hectic week to talk to you about your work. If you're on a big team, this may be one of the few times they meet with you alone.
If they feel out of the loop, then they'll want to talk to you about projects to feel like they know what's going on. It's also a super safe topic to fill the time, and avoid tough, sometimes uncomfortable, subjects that really matter.
Give them status updates outside your 1 on 1 meetings.
Your manager needs a status update, even if you don't talk about it in your 1 on 1 meeting. The best way then to get them out of your 1 on 1 meeting then is to find ways to get them a status update another time.
Fortunately, there are a lot of great options to help your manager depending on your situation:
- Email Update: Simply send them an email at a frequency you agree makes sense with some basic updates from you on your work.
- Stand Up Meeting: Suggest to your manager you and the team start having a standup meeting to provide daily, bite-size updates. This can ease concerns for even the tensest manager.
- Use a Tool to Help: There are quite a few tools out there from email based ones like IDoneThis to Slack-based ones like StandupJack. They all help organize status updates for your manager across your team.
Whichever option works best in your situation, work with them to perfect it. The better the updates they get, the less you'll both be tempted to talk about status updates in your 1 on 1 meetings. This frees up time for all the great topics that make for effective 1 to 1 meetings.
If you're a manager unsure of what you should be discussing in your 1 on 1 meetings, read What to Talk About in a One on One with Your Team Member.
3) Bring things you want to talk about.
It's not your manager's fault if you have nothing to talk about in your 1 on 1 meeting.
In fact, every time you come to your meeting with nothing to discuss, it makes them dread their 1 on 1 meeting with you a little more. It also gives them another reason to want to cancel or fill the time with status updates.
No one likes pulling teeth, and it can be excruciating to try to draw everything out of you. This is why it's important for you to think about what you want to talk about.
Don't make your answer to, "what do you want to talk about?" a blank stare.
Make an agenda for your 1 on 1 meeting.
As you go through your week, write down things you want to discuss as they come to you. By your next 1 on 1 meeting, you'll have a healthy list of questions and topics you want to talk about with your manager
Not sure where to start? Here are some great topics to consider:
- Your Career/Growth Goals: If you have an aspiration, don't assume your manager knows it. Bring it up. (More on this later.)
- Team Improvement: Have ideas to help the team improve, or work better? Effective 1 on 1 meetings are a great time to discuss them and either come up with ways to apply them or understand why you can't do them.
- Self Improvement: Want help, feedback, or coaching on something? Ask! By specifically asking, your manager is more likely to be able to carve out time to help and provide feedback in that area.
- Personal Topics: Is there something personal they should know about? Like a family death, sickness, stress at home, etc? Letting them know about things that affect your work can help them have more empathy for you and open up the potential for reasonable accommodations.
- Interpersonal Issues: Having problems with a coworker? Your manager can help mediate or coach you through how to deal with the issue.
Your manager is not a mind reader! If you don't tell them, don't expect them to know. Even great managers struggle to understand what their people need when they're tight-lipped.
Effective 1 on 1 meetings happen when you do your part to bring things you want to discuss.
The best way to ensure that happens is to make sure you write down topics as you think of them. Then, bring that list as an agenda to your 1 on 1 meeting.
4) Talk about your career goals.
We hear a common scenario over and over again: During your performance review, your manager asks you what your career goals are. You have a good conversation about ways you want to grow, and it's noted in your review.
Then, six months to a year goes by, and nothing happens.
When you finally get to your next review cycle, you both realize you haven't talked about your goals since the last review. In a rush, your manager copies over what you discussed last time and moves on to the next part of the review. They think they just saved 20 minutes, and you're left feeling disappointed.
Is it any surprise that all the research shows that career growth & development is the top perk employees look for in their next job?
Bring your career growth and development goals to your 1 on 1 meetings
It would be great if your manager went up to you and said, "I really care about your career growth, so let's find a time on our calendars to talk about it soon." Unfortunately, even the best managers rarely get the chance to say that.
However, this is the beauty of your 1 on 1 meeting; it's a flexible time already on your calendars where you are the main subject of the meeting. This is the perfect time to bring up any skills you want to improve on, new things you want to learn about, or a new role you aspire to.
Looking for ideas on how to have that discussion? These posts can help you and your manager:
- 3 Approaches to having a great career conversation.
- What to do if you're not sure what you want to do next.
- How to grow your skills if a promotion isn't possible (or what you want).
Your manager likely knows about opportunities in the company that you don't. If you make your career and skills growth part of your 1 on 1 meetings, they're much more likely to recognize a role you could fit when openings come up.
It also creates an opportunity for you to make regular progress between review cycles. By breaking down challenges into steps you can accomplish between 1 on 1 meetings, you tap into the best way to stay motivated at work, according to Harvard research.
Career growth and development conversations are an essential part of how to have effective 1 on 1 meetings. Put them on your 1 on 1 meeting agenda so you don't wait for next review cycle to talk about them.
Want to document all your team members' goals in one place? Download our 1:1 meeting template below.
5) Encourage your manager to take notes.
There are few words to dread more in a 1 on 1 meeting than hearing your manager say, "I'm sorry. What did we talk about last time?"
Suddenly, any progress you hoped to make to build on is being reset. You now have to spend a big portion of your time refreshing their memory.
How could your manager forget something so important to you?
It's often an innocent mistake. They're running in a million directions and your 1 on 1 meeting is just one of many conversations they've had in the last few weeks. It's hard for them to remember off the top of their head. This is why they need to take notes.
Ask your manager to write things down.
Whether your manager is afraid they'll interrupt the flow of your meeting, or they just don't have a habit of doing so, you need to convince them to take notes. Studies show it will have a major impact on their memory and preparation for your future 1 on 1 meetings.
If something is important to you, and you want them to remember it, don't be afraid to pause and say:
"This is important to me. If you want to take a minute to write this down, we can pause for a moment."
If you also see them look like they want to write something down, but hesitate, encourage them to take a second to do so. You can use positive reinforcement to also thank and praise them for doing it.
The more they take notes on the most important parts of your 1 on 1 meetings, the more valuable they'll become for both of you. They'll be more prepared, and you'll trust you can build on what happened in the last meeting.
Taking notes is an essential part of effective 1 on 1 meetings. You can help your manager build this habit by encouraging them to take notes, and helping them understand the most important things you want them to remember. (Ed. note: This post can also help them with note taking tactics to fit any situation.)
6) Make it actionable.
Finally having a great conversation with your manager about something important to you feels great. Like a pressure relief valve finally letting off a build-up of steam, you feel relieved.
Unfortunately, that feeling can be very short-lived if a week or two later you're talking about the same issue again.
Taking notes in the meeting will help with some of this, but even then it's easy to continue to revisit the same issue without making progress. If your meetings always simply end with something like, "See you next time," don't be surprised if some of your discussions start to feel like a broken record.
Close the meeting by talking about steps for next time.
Without action, there is no progress. Without progress, there's no change. And if nothing changes, you're going to get discouraged. You will start to see little point in continuing to talk about issues and ideas important to you.
It's more than a feeling. Researchers at Harvard found that *nothing* is more motivating than this feeling of progress. As they discovered:
"Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work."
What's more meaningful than progress on what you talk about in your 1 on 1 meetings?
If you've had a good discussion in your 1 on 1 meeting, then the crucial follow-up step is to establish what can be done about it. Ask, "What do you think we can both do for next time based on what we talked about?"
By presenting it as a question, you make your manager feel like part of the solution, which makes them more likely to keep their commitments coming from it. You can, and should, also propose next steps to make it a group action.
The best part is, this creates a social contract; if you deliver for your manager on your action items, they're more likely to keep their end of the agreement, too. You can even try reciprocity again by saying, "If I've done this, can you do this for me?"
Establishing next steps is a great way to ensure you continue to have effective 1 on 1 meetings for the long term. Taking 2 minutes at the end of your 1 on 1 to set them can make all the difference.
7) Think about your manager's view.
There are two people that make up a 1 on 1 meeting. So far, we've focused on you, and how you can get your manager to do a few more things that benefit you.
It's also important to remember that across the table, video chat, or conference room is another person. They also have stresses, pressures, challenges, ideas, and needs.
Depending on what's going on in your company, they may not be getting the support or attention they need. They may have the best of intentions, but be overwhelmed to the point of it possibly being too much.
Ask about how you can help and support them, too.
Taking even a few minutes to talk about how you can help them can make a big difference. If your manager has a really big team, they can use all the help they can get.
Here are a few ways you can better manage up and make work life better for them:
- In the loop: Find out what they feel out of the loop on related to your work. Create a light-weight way to keep them updated.
- Take the lead: If they're managing many projects at once, offer to take the lead on one part so it's not on them to lead every meeting, decision, or deliverable. This is also a great way for you to build leadership skills.
- Learn their style: Simply adapting some of your deliverables to fit a style that makes their life easier can be a lifesaver. This could be a summary page, a certain template they prefer, or timing of when to request feedback.
When you show a little empathy and accommodation to your manager, it makes them more likely to want to do the same for you. It also builds trust, which can be invaluable when they're considering who to promote or give more responsibility.
Effective 1 on 1 meetings are a two-way street. Take a few minutes to talk about ways you can help them, and you're more likely to get what you want, too.
Make the most of 1 on 1 meetings with your manager
If your 1 on 1 meetings with your manager don't feel productive, implement these tips to maximize their value and take your 1 on 1s to another level.
A few small changes, as well as a healthy nudge by you for your to manager establish certain habits during your meetings, can make all the difference.
The seven points we covered are essential for making the most of 1 on 1 meetings with your manager. However, they're not the only things you can do to make them more effective.
Here's further reading to help you get even more value from your 1 on 1s on a variety of key topics we covered today:
On managing up...
You play an important part in managing the relationship between you and your manager.
The good news is, you have the power to improve your relationship with your manager, whether your relationship is already pretty good or could use some improvement.
Learn more about managing up with your boss:
- Mastering Managing Up: Listen on the Creating High Performing Teams Podcast
- 18 Questions to Ask Your Manager to Better Manage Up
- 3 Ways to Better Manage Up By Developing Empathy
- 9 Expert Tips for Managing Up at Work from Real Leaders
On building rapport...
1 on 1s are a great way for managers and team members to build rapport and trust with each other.
Remember this is a two-way street; you should look to build rapport with your manager as well, not just the other way around. Doing so helps you build trust and makes it easier to work through issues and offer feedback.
Learn more about building rapport:
- 81 Ways How to Build Rapport With Anyone You Work With
- How to Build Rapport with Your Remote Team Members
- Why You Should Build Rapport with Everyone You Manage
- What to do when your One-on-Ones get too personal
- Why psychological safety is key to innovative teams (and how to create it)
Improving your listening skills...
Listening is a critical skill if you want to be a great manager. But it's also an important skill when you're communicating with your own manager and receiving feedback or advice.
One on ones are an opportunity for your manager to give you feedback. The better your listening skills, the better you can implement that feedback, impress your manager, learn, and grow.
Further reading to help you improve your listening skills:
- How Managers can be More Effective Listeners
- The Most Important, Yet Overlooked Management Skill
- Improve you or your manager's listening + note-taking skills with the Last 5 Minutes Method (See point #5)
On having regular, high-quality 1 on 1s...
It's important to have regular 1 on 1s; infrequent 1 on 1s make it very difficult to make meaningful progress on anything.
One on ones serve as not only a way to voice concerns, acquire and give feedback, and create plans, but to follow up on the previous meeting's items.
When meetings are spaced so far apart, it's impossible to build any momentum or accountability meeting to meeting.
Think about it from a procrastination perspective: if you have a week to do something, you'll need to do it very soon and will likely make it a small task, while if you have 12 weeks, it's easy to forget and make it too big a task.
That's why we recommend meeting every 1-2 weeks with everyone on your team depending on your team size and schedule constraints.
Learn more about having regular, high-quality 1 on 1s:
- The Value of 1:1 Meetings and How to Make the Most of Them
- 10 Things Every Employee Should Know About Their One-on-Ones
- How to Get Status Updates Out of Your 1 on 1s (and what to focus on instead)
- How Lighthouse Helped Edlio Have More Meaningful 1 on 1 Meetings and Transform Their Culture - Lighthouse Case Studies
And the importance of the right 1 on 1 meeting frequency:
- Why Quarterly Check-ins Don't work and Contribute to Turnover
- The Best Meeting Cadence for Different Types of 1 on 1s
- 5 Reasons Why Having One on Ones Once a Month is Not Enough
And essential advice as your expertise in 1 on 1s grows:
- How to Evolve Your 1-on-1s Over Time for Maximum Value
- 30 One on One Meeting Tips for Effective One on Ones
- Who really owns a 1 on 1 meeting? It's not so simple.
How do you prepare for a 1 on 1 with your boss?
The best way to prepare for a 1 on 1 with your boss is to put together a 1 on 1 agenda. Here are some tips for doing that:
- Have some talking points written down ahead of time
- Know what you want to accomplish in the meeting on the topics you bring up
- Keep status updates out of your 1 on 1s; provide them another way
- Set actionable next steps on your talking points, if applicable, before the meeting ends
- When possible, discuss long-term career goals and career development (Ask for feedback, coaching, training, etc)
What's the value of having 1 on 1s with your team members?
The value of regular, effective 1 on 1 meetings is huge, including:
- Employees who don't have regular 1 on 1 meetings are 4x more likely to be disengaged
- 1 on 1 meetings can reduce turnover
- Regular 1 on 1s improve the flow of ideas and information
- They allow you to develop stronger relationships and more open communication
Learn more about the value of effective 1 on 1 meetings in our guide The Value of 1:1 Meetings and How to Make the Most of Them.
What do you talk about in a 1 on 1?
You can talk about all kinds of things in 1 on 1s, but it really comes down to a few topics:
- Rapport: Ask them how they're doing and what they like to do on their free time
- Feedback: Ask them about their performance and yours, about the team, the company, and any ideas they might have for improvement in all of these areas
- Career and skill development: 1 on 1s are a perfect place to work on developing yourself if you're an employee meeting with your boss. If you're a manager, these meetings are the ideal place to develop leaders and create plans to grow your team members' skills
- Issues: What blocks are in place keeping them from doing their best work?
Want more ideas? See hundreds of questions you can ask in 1 on 1s here.