What Do You Talk about in 1:1s?

The title says a lot of what I’d like to ask people here. Not everyone has experience of 1:1s (one to ones). Often those of us who have experience of them still don’t necessarily know how to act during a 1:1 to get the best out of them.

Of course, there are two sides to this, that of the manager and that of the employee. I’m eager to hear both sides as I think we can learn a lot from each other.

What do you talk about in 1:1s? How do you prepare for them?

As a manager here is my thoughts:

I have two main objectives. One is to help with the long term development of the individual so that they are improving, learning and being motivated. The other is for the employee to vent / share to see if there is anything that is making their situation less than optimal that I need to act on.

The second part is typically captured with. How is it going?

The first part is trickier since it depends a lot on the other person.

General rule number 1. For junior people I need to help them learn how to be a professional. Which can be a lot of different things. How to time report. How do you structure your work. How do you deal with conflict. How do you work with self improvement. The goal is to get to a point where anyone can ask the person “Hey can you do this work?” and they can say yes without any intervention from others what I call autonomy. For Senior people who already can do this. I instead will need to find out their goals and ambitions. Shape them into something that is useful for the organisation and help them achieve that. Once you have the “we are working on this together” the format becomes a little easier.

General rule number 2. You want to give positive reinforcement. Any steps they have taken to achieve the goals should be praised and any behavioral improvement also should be encouraged. As a preparation step (since I personally are bad at this) it is good to write down what you actually want to praise beforehand. Something I have gotten from several sources is the concept of you giving them feedback. I’ve come across a few different ideas about how you give good feedback. But all my efforts on it did not work. I felt awkward and they did not really change. Then one day it finally clicked. Attending a leadership course they said instead of giving feedback your job is to help them find better ways of acting and for that purpose the “feedback” is not cutting it.
I had a member of my team that was struggling and I was requested to try the recipe on that person by in the training role play the scenario. So I follow this recipe in the exercise and my partner who played the role of my colleague without knowing the person came to a very good action as a result of the exercise. So in the next 1-1 I did the same thing live. And my colleague came to the same action, and started doing it and changing their behavior the very same week. Mind blown!
Here is the recipe to help people find actions for improving, take ownership of it and the motivation to do it:

  1. Give them a complement to set the stage as a safe and positive environment.
  2. Bring the subject on the table without your colleague to lose their face. Most of us know the stupid things we do, there is no need to spell it out. But it needs to be clear that both of you know what you are talking about. Instead of “You are such and idiot for not be done on time so the entire release was delayed.” do “I know that you are really hard working and I really appreciate that. I saw that you were working like crazy the day before this release that was delayed, let me share one of my experiences”
  3. Share a story of your own experience. It do not need to be 100% applicable to the situation on the table. The important message is that you did something wrong or bad, learned from it, changed your behavior and had a better outcome. Here that might have been “This was some years ago, it was Sunday evening, I’m watching my clock, I’ve barely slept the last couple of days and I realize. I will not make it in time. I just wanted to blame my shame away. But this time the only person to blame was me. I should have started earlier, I had the entire week on me to do this but did a lot of other things instead. From now on I always keep a list of the highest priority tasks on my desk to help remind me of what I should be working on first. And I have never put myself in that position again since”
  4. Coach them to figure out what they want to do in order to address the issue on the table. They do not need to come to the same conclusion as you on what to do about it. They have the solution, and it need to be theirs for the motivation and ownership. Do not tell them what to do. Ask them to do something about. Just like you did in your story.
  5. Next 1-1 positive reinforcement.
    Step 1-3 you should prepare before the meeting.

General rule number 3. Follow up. If you have asked them to work on something you need to touch base with that. If they have asked something from you, you need to reconnect.

Sometimes I skip the improvement / vent loop and have a feedback session. Roughly once every 6 months or so I ask my colleagues to give me feedback if there is anything they want me to do better.

An agenda would then look something like this.

  • You are awesome because…
  • How is it going? How are you doing? How has your week been? Etc.
  • Last time we talked about this… where are we with this?
  • What is the next step?
  • Any other business

Some pointer for your actions during the meeting.

  • LISTEN!! Use paraphrasing (share back part of what they said) to make sure that you understood it and to make them feel heard.
  • Don’t be afraid to say. I don’t know, let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.
  • Also if you or they don’t have time to have the meeting don’t have it.
  • It’s more of a workshop than a status reporting meeting.
  • 1 complain = 9 praises so don’t complain.

@ola.sundin’s answer is pretty concise. I’d like to add method.

In Business Studies at high school we learnt about SWOT analysis; Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. It translates well to 1:1 content I think.

  1. Strengths: Make a checklist of what went well since the last time you had a 1:1,
  2. Weaknesses: Add to the list what didn’t go so well and your suggestions for improvements,
  3. Opportunities: Add to the list things that you would like to do in your work,
  4. Threats: And finally add to the list things that you’re unhappy about at work, or things that you can could be improved.
  5. Make sure each of these has a priority (eg what is most important to you, or least important), because maybe the list becomes too big to fit into the allocated 1:1 time.

I see immense value in having 1:1s from both ends of the spectrum!

I wrote a blog on it: https://christovskia.blog/2020/04/22/just-one-on-one/

and then the Testing Peers did an episode on the subject: https://testingpeers.com/?p=171


As a manager I say, whatever the employee wants to talk about!
“What’s on your mind?” Is the best way to start. You’re there to support.

Team members range from talking about project work, goals, general chat, any support or concerns they have…it depends on the individual.


I keep a doc with things to discuss. The doc is accessible on phone & computer. So, whenever something important pops up, I add it to the doc. Here are the things I do as an employee.

1 - Follow up on previous 1on1 if required.
2 - Discuss concerns/problems & solutions.
3 - Advertise my achievements at high level.
4 - Appreciate specific teammates for any significant help.

I exchange brief pleasantries, but I like to keep chit chat at a minimum in these sessions so that we can focus on important things & not get distracted. There is always time for chit chat outside of the 1on1. Sometimes, when there is nothing to discuss, I ask if its ok to meet anyway just to do chit chat & catch up. This can be helpful depending on how well you know your manager, & especially in remote work these days.


1-1s are the most important meetings of my week as without my team, none of the work would get done.

I think it really depends on the individual, so it is important to adapt our style as leaders to map to what they need the meeting to be. Some will want a regular check-point, just to touch base on a personal level, others will want to discuss their work in detail.

i think its important that it’s not your only time with your team member, so it’s good to discuss where they would like more support/coaching from you and then set up more sessions to cover that.

i always like to check how their family/personal life is first, maybe if they have an interest which they have shared with you, then find something to discuss with them ( i discuss everything from Football to “This is Us” with my team)

Not every meeting, but i use maybe one every 3 or 4 to discuss objectives/personal development with them and again, anything they need support/coaching/mentoring with

Don’t leave any concerning or negative discussions to the 1-1s, try and cover them as soon as they become an issue.

Don’t end the meeting on a negative…