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Handling “I don’t have anything to talk about” in your 1:1s

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You kick off a 1:1 meeting with one of your reports, and they say “I don’t have anything to talk about this week.” Several weeks have gone by and it’s the same every week. A couple of dry updates on their projects, and they’re done in 5 minutes. How do you revive the 1:1 and make it a valuable meeting?

There’s three things I like to do. You can use them as a sounding board for your issues (reverse the 1:1 and get coaching from them). You could you can prompt them with things that will show them how to do a 1:1, and help them get past the “I don’t have anything to talk about” trap. Or you can spend a lot more time on your agenda items.

Flipping the meeting around and talking to them about your problems is a powerful technique. This will help them see the bigger picture and to level up their skills. For junior people, it can also help them see what it’s like to be a manager, so they can decide if that’s a career path they’ll take later on.

I might tell them about the issues I’m having with recruiting. Or a logistics problem we’re having with a customer. They’ll often have a fresh perspective, and even if they don’t, it gets them thinking about more than their corner of the team. Besides, sometimes just talking through an issue helps you see it differently.

I also have a set of prompting questions I like to use. These are designed to help the person think about their job differently, show me what’s really going on in the company, get feedback on my performance, and surface ideas that the employee would otherwise be too shy to bring up. I might ask then to draw a pie chart representing the different types of work they’re doing, and them ask them to draw it again, this time with the types of work they wish they were doing. I’ll ask what we’re not doing as a team that we should be doing. I’ll ask what they wish I was doing that I’m not doing. I’ll ask them to tell me something happening in the team or company that I probably don’t know about, and then I’ll interview them deeply on that topic.

When someone says they have nothing to discuss, they’re almost always thinking too narrowly, assuming the 1:1 is just there to keep a manager apprised of your work, or that “I talk to you any time I need something, so a 1:1 is superfluous.” If you realize that the 1:1 is there to work on improving the work, you’ll have better meetings.

This is one of a series of posts about holding 1:1s. View the rest of the series.

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