During 1-on-1 meetings, I’ve often had a direct report who says “I have nothing to share” or “nothing from my side this week.”
When I was still an inexperienced manager, I would reply “okay great, let’s end the meeting and go back to work then!” However, after more years of running 1-on-1’s with dozens of different personalities, I’ve learned that ending the meeting is always the wrong thing to do.
Over time, I’ve developed a list of questions that I keep readily available in a corner of my mind in case those situations arise, as a way to unblock them and generate more insightful discussions. In this article, I’m sharing my approach.
Why would someone not want to share?
When someone tells me he has nothing to share, now I take this as a sign that either (1) he doesn’t trust me as a manager, or (2) he’s too busy or overwhelmed with work to take some distance and reflect from a more tactical perspective, or (3) he simply doesn’t have the maturity to spar or ask for help.
As a manager, you need to stay up-to-date with the right information about the health of your team or org: status of task and project progression, KPIs, personal development points for direct reports, and so on.
If your direct reports aren’t feeding you this information, then it’s your job to extract it. Often, I’ve found that 1on1’s are not always the most efficient tools to go about those topics, but sometimes it’s just the only channel or tool that’s available for that.
The key questions to unblock conversations
Once you have visibility on the basic health of your org, then it’s also your job to dig further and make sure the 1-on-1 time is used fruitfully.
When someone tells you they have nothing to share or nothing new this week, the way to unblock the conversation is to ask questions that focus on your interlocutor’s experience and on how he personally feels about things. This will generate new insights and new topics of conversation.
Below are some questions that I find myself going back to frequently. Of course, you have to adapt the phrasing to your personal style so they sound genuine coming from you:
- What has been on your mind these days?
- What’s the most exciting/interesting thing you’ve worked on since we last spoke?
- What has been the most frustrating thing for you over the past week?
- What is one thing within our team/org that you’re looking forward to?
- Is there something you’re trying to learn, either tech or soft skills? What can I do to help you with that?
- Anything I can support you with?
Why it matters that you unblock your quiet 1-on-1’s?
As I mentioned above, to me, quiet 1-on-1’s are always a signal that something is not running correctly.
I’ve had 1-on-1’s in which I had to revert to such questions within the first five minutes of conversation, and that ended up generating a whole hour of conversation with my direct reports.
In my experience as a manager, at least 50% of the value I get from 1-on-1’s comes from generating topics from my interlocutor’s experience, and how they feel. They are important because they help build more genuine relationships. Those questions also help get deeper insights into people and teams, along with early signs friction and misalignment of objectives, mission, and vision.
So next time someone tells you “nothing from my side this week” during a 1-on-1, try one of the questions above. If you do get some insights you didn’t expect, swing back to share your experience in a comment below!
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