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One on One Meeting Opening Lines

30 November 2019

I have weekly one on ones with my direct reports. The objective is to build a good relationship and remove immediate roadblocks.

The format I follow is currently 30 minutes and heavily inspired by Manager Tools and The Effective Manager book. It looks like this:

  • 10 minutes for them. They can talk about whatever they’d like. If it’s important to them, it’s important to me. This can mean discussing ongoing projects, company positioning, technical areas or even personal topics.
  • 10 minutes for me  with the same idea in mind.
  • 10 minutes for the long term, basically discussions to avoid any surprises during yearly performance reviews.

At the beginning of every one on one, it’s important to have a clear way for both parties to go from chit-chat to the actual meeting. For the few years I’ve been doing it, I found that the sentence I’d use would have an impact on the type of discussions we’d end up having.

That seems trivial, but since I’m having A LOT of one on ones, I’ve tried different openers to see what would work best. Here is what I’ve seen:

  • “What’s going on?” often leads to discussions about ongoing projects and reporting.
  • “How are you?” gives more personal discussions, or can result in “I’m good, what about you?” which defeats the purpose of kickstarting the conversation by giving them the lead.
  • “How is X going?” “Any news on Y?” are generally to be avoided because they really narrow the discussion to what I want discussed.
  • “What’s on your mind?” tends to have people talk about what is going on today, when the discussion should be broader.
  • Saying nothing doesn’t usually work with most people, leading to an awkward start or a meeting that never properly “starts” - which can be fine now and then.

My favorite way to begin the conversation nowadays is “What do you want to talk about?”.

This reminds us that the objective of the first ten minutes is to let them speak and share what is relevant to them. When they finish speaking, I’ll often ask “is there anything else you’d like to talk about?” to make sure that we’re not skipping something important.

Obviously every person is different, but it feels like having this opener makes for smoother one on ones in most cases. Of course it’s completely clear to my direct reports that I say this one sentence on purpose, but I find that more humorous than anything and people have been either neutral or joking about it so I’d say it’s fine!