One-On-Ones Are Like Dancing Tango: the Music Never Stops.

Oana Filip

After run­ning dozens of one-on-one meet­ings since the begin­ning of the year, I dare to share a bunch of insight­ful take­aways. For such a small team as ours, these lessons are valu­able and eye-open­ing in many regards. Long sto­ry short, the main perk links to clar­i­ty regard­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion across the team, and active con­tri­bu­tion to people’s evo­lu­tion.

I tried to sum up only the must-have ideas regard­ing deliv­er­ing effec­tive one-on-ones. Take the fol­low­ing thoughts with a pinch of salt and try to see if you res­onate with my approach. It might work or not for your par­tic­u­lar team, it depends on a bunch of things, but feel free to adjust every­thing to your rhythm. Let the music play!

One-on-ones need a clear agenda.

With­out an intense focus, these quick gath­er­ings can sure­ly become a nev­er-end­ing sto­ry about every­thing and noth­ing at the same time. I’ve always been try­ing to keep a clear goal in mind. Since I’m wear­ing the peo­ple-per­son hat, my pri­ma­ry focus is to help peo­ple adjust behav­iors and atti­tudes. In the end, you are not what you preach but what you do. The small ges­tures define your char­ac­ter.

I’m show­ing-up with clear expec­ta­tions to make the most out of the time spent with my team­mates. If the first one-on-ones took an hour (some­times even more), now I can keep track and do my home­work in 30 min­utes or so. It depends on the con­text and the gen­er­al ener­gy lev­el for both of us, but I most­ly suc­ceed to make it hap­pen with­in this time­frame.

Key take­away: I take time to draw the agen­da and I pre­pare myself by get­ting as famil­iar as I can with the top­ic and the gen­er­al con­text. I start with pos­i­tive assump­tions aboard and adapt my mes­sage on the fly.

One-on-ones require patience and empathy.

Pixelgrade’s team is diverse regard­ing per­son­al­i­ties, edu­ca­tion­al back­ground, pas­sions, ambi­tions and so on. We love this diver­si­ty, and we encour­age it as much as we can. On the oth­er side, dif­fer­ent peo­ple react to dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion approach­es. At least that’s a par­tic­u­lar insight that I learned after sev­er­al years of being a sto­ry­teller.

I prac­tice empa­thy and read about it on a con­stant basis as much as I try to dive into oth­er psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cepts, such as rec­i­p­ro­ca­tion and con­fir­ma­tion bias­es. They’re help­ing me under­stand bet­ter how to man­age the one-on-one meet­ings from an emo­tion­al per­spec­tive, which can be drain­ing.

Key take­away: I take busi­ness coach­ing ses­sions every two weeks to make sure I am down to earth and keep my per­spec­tive as objec­tive and rel­e­vant as I can.

One-on-ones involve constant follow-up.

I quick­ly noticed that one-on-one solve noth­ing if I don’t run fol­low-up ses­sions. With oth­er words, shar­ing the mes­sage in right way and with the right tone of voice doesn’t imply a real com­mit­ment. Not at all. In fact, I learned that I need to con­stant­ly go back to what I agreed with my team­mates to reas­sure them that I’m aware of the sta­tus and I’m there to lend a hand.

One of the main strug­gles I’m still fac­ing today is tied to the lack of speed regard­ing progress. I know that it’s quite nor­mal to have a slow­er pace since it’s tremen­dous­ly hard to make sig­nif­i­cant changes regard­ing behav­iors, atti­tudes, beliefs. Most peo­ple get stuck in a men­tal mod­el that keeps them hostages. How­ev­er, there’s a thin line there that I need to man­age.

Key take­away: I con­nect the dots on a big­ger scale and give my best to fol­low a macro red thread, but also stick to what’s in the present. I deeply believe in the pow­er of immers­ing into today’s real­i­ty.

One-on-ones are all about being vulnerable.

After nine months, I high­ly believe that one-on-one doesn’t work with­out being hon­est and vul­ner­a­ble from both par­ties. I start­ed to share sto­ries about sen­si­tive moments in my career’s path from the very begin­ning of run­ning one-on-one meet­ings. I let my col­leagues know that I was in the mid­dle of pro­fes­sion­al bat­tles which made me feel exposed. The good news is that those par­tic­u­lar con­texts shaped my evo­lu­tion and made me who I am today.

Act­ing like a detached mod­er­a­tor who just asks ques­tions, lis­tens, sets expec­ta­tions and mon­i­tors the results is not enough. I found out that my team needs to know that we are in this togeth­er and the sim­ple fact that we’re spend­ing this qual­i­ty time means a lot. Grat­i­tude is part of the game.

Key take­away: I’m mak­ing room for every one-on-one meet­ing (by the way, I nev­er run more than two, max­i­mum three per week, but not every sin­gle week), and dig into the play­ground with a pos­i­tive atti­tude.

One-on-ones should act like a guidance session.

Along the way, I observed (sev­er­al times) that some folks were refer­ring to the one-on-one chats as a gate­way to solv­ing a bunch of per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al endeav­ors. They pro­ject­ed these occa­sions like a one-size-fits-all kind of moment when a lot of their strug­gles should be dilut­ed.

In fact, real­i­ty shows that it hap­pens the full oppo­site. I’m no sav­ior, nor I am their best bud­dy who will get a 360 degree under­stand­ing of their life. It’s everyone’s choice to become bet­ter, to evolve, to expand their men­tal plas­tic­i­ty, to become more inclu­sive, more tol­er­ant, and improve their soft-skills. I can lend a hand, but it’s their self­ish call.

Key take­away: Nobody needs heroes, but almost all of us are hap­py to have an active lis­ten­er around. I stay away from inti­mate issues and I avoid being involved in that sense because it affects my mind­set.

If you’re in a sim­i­lar sce­nario and want to start run­ning one-on-ones, but you need a bit of guid­ance, I sug­gest you to con­sid­er the fol­low­ing best prac­tices. They’re not the equiv­a­lent of a blue­print, but it should help you kick-off:

  • Cre­ate, main­tain, and adjust your agen­da — take your time to work on it, there’s not an ”over a cof­fee” kind of task;
  • Con­nect to your teammate’s state of mind and emo­tions — it’s not about you nor your plan to deliv­er the mes­sage;
  • Start the fol­low-up game as ear­ly as you can — peo­ple for­get, so try to keep the dia­logue alive and recon­nect in two-three weeks;
  • Be hum­ble and human and man­i­fest vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty — it’s the best liai­son that any­one can refer to with ease and emo­tion­al effect;
  • Be an adult and try to under­stand; lead, don’t solve — every­one is in charge of their life, rein­force this mes­sage and stick to guid­ance, not fix­ing;
  • Hang tight and don’t drop the ship — you will face plen­ty of moments when you will feel alone, walk­ing in the dark, and hop­ing that some­one will shed light (they will, but in their swing).

I’m hap­py with how things went so far even and I know that noth­ing spec­tac­u­lar hap­pens with­out effort, giv­ing before get­ting, and a lot of hard work. I’m con­fi­dent with how far we’ve head­ed in this area, and I’m eager to con­tribute to a bet­ter crew, ready to hit the play but­ton for the next tan­go!

Oana Filip
Oana Filip

Digital storyteller @Pixelgrade and community builder for creative industries. A true believer in the power of making the world a better place.