9 Strategies to Get Employees Talking in One-on-Ones

one word answers“How are things?” you ask.

“Good,” she replies.

“What’s been keeping you busy?”

“Normal stuff, I guess.”

“Like what? What are the kinds of things demanding your attention and effort these  days?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Does this exchange sound familiar? If you hold regular one-on-one meetings with employees (and there’s no question you should) then you’ve probably gone up against the no-talker. Or the one-word-answer-giver. What’s a dedicated, invested leader like yourself to do? You genuinely care about your employees’ ideas, opinions, and challenges. How can you involve and engage them if they won’t talk?  Well have no fear, dear reader, here are nine (yes, NINE!) strategies to get the conversation going in one-on-one meetings:

  • Ask Why or How questions. Open-ended questions (not “Yes-No” questions) are the lifeblood of any conversation. Questions that start with Why or How by their nature require an explanation. Plan to have several ready to go, the more specific the better.
  • Wait. Silence is uncomfortable for some. Get over that. Don’t give in to the compulsion to fill the space. If you ask a legitimate, sophisticated question, and get a one word answer, stay silent. You’ll be surprised how often the employee will start talking again.
  • Start by asking for advice.  Try opening with this: “Hey, I’m really glad we were scheduled to meet today. I’d love to get your advice on something. I’m trying to figure out…”
  • Share a personal story. If you open with some variation of “How are you?” most of the time your counterpart will ask a similar, general question. Answer it by sharing something you did that weekend or that happened that morning, then use it to pivot back to them. Like this: “I’m good…I’m tired, though. My daughter has been sick and I was up with her several times last night. She insists that she’ll only get better if she can sleep in her bed with ALL of her barbies. At 3am I finally gave in!  What’s the cold and flu season been like in your house?”
  • Ask for specific feedback. Ask about processes, systems, atmosphere, or even your performance. Ex. “If you could change anything about the way things work at the front desk, what would it be?”
  • Offer a different communications vehicle. People who prefer Introversion – that is people who prefer to take in and process information before responding or deciding – will often shine when given just a bit of space to ruminate. If you’re not getting much from someone during your meetings, restate how much you value their thoughts/feedback/ideas/opinions, then invite them to follow-up via email, text, leaving a note, or “dropping in.”
  • Thank and tell after. Any time one of your reluctant participants DOES give you advice, feedback, or an opinion, be sure to circle back to them later (perhaps a few days after your meeting) to thank them and explain how it helped you. This is the “I was thinking about what you said, here’s how it really helped me” strategy. Do this with all employees, as it’s proof of their value and influence.
  • Ask for more. Despite your best efforts you may have to come right out and ask the employee to get more verbally involved. Ex. “Jim, I really value your insight, but I’m not getting much from you when I bring up things to discuss. Can you give me a little more?”
  • Be ok with it. Not every one-on-one has to be a profound, life-changing, professionally satisfying discussion. In fact, some people just aren’t talkers. Assess your approach. If you’re asking thoughtful questions, are demonstrating a sincere interest in the person across from you, and if they appear engaged in all other parts of their job, then accept that this person is just less verbal than most.

And a BONUS strategy, which actually brings our total to 10:

  • Give out a question or two ahead of time. Giving employees a heads up on something you plan to ask at a one-on-one may result in a more robust conversation.

Research suggests the most effective one-on-ones are led by employees. Survey data supports this approach, as most employees want to set the agenda in their one-on-one meetings. That doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to plan and prepare for one-on-one meetings. In some cases you have to work a little harder to create an easygoing dialogue. Try out the strategies listed here and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get the gab going.

Joe Mull, M.Ed., is author of Cure for the Common Leader: What Physicians & Managers Must Do to Engage & Inspire Healthcare Teams. He is in demand as a speaker and trainer on leadership and employee engagement in healthcare. Learn more about Joe by visiting cureforthecommonleader.com.


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