Business Communication · Employee Coaching · Leadership · Mentoring · Personal Competencies

20 Tips For One-on-One Employee Discussions

Talking to employees about necessary behavior change challenges many leads, supervisors, and managers. Sometimes the discussions are complex and planning your approach can take a potentially conflicted conversation to a productive discussion which makes the employee feel valued.

I wrote these discussion tips to support my clients’ successes after their coaching sessions with me.

Get it now and read it later: you can request a downloadable and printable PDF of this tip sheet at

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Lead/Supervisor/Manager One-On-One Discussion Tips

This material is focused on those times when you need to schedule a meeting with an employee for the purpose of discovery: understand the employee experience so you can understand the employee need and guide the employee to appropriate action.

  1. Establish a clear goal prior to meeting with the employee. Examples may include: Identify a change in the employee’s work/personal life that has created a change in the employee behavior or attitude. Learn about the barriers an employee is facing that has resulted in attendance issues. Establish the truth behind a rumor related to the employee. Provide the employee with an opportunity to vent. Find out why the employee has been “bad-mouthing” a co-worker/supervisor/manager/the company.
  1. Consider the appropriate environment for the meeting. Ideally you will choose an environment that will minimize any reminders related to your level of authority. For example, for these conversations it is not recommended that you sit on one side of a desk and ask the employee to sit on the other side of a desk. Appropriate options may include sitting at a round table in a neutral location (not your office), sitting outside at a location where the discussion will not be interrupted, taking a walk with the employee, or maybe even taking the employee to lunch.
  1. Prior to the meeting, clear your mind of assumptions. Do not go into the meeting assuming you know everything there is to know about the person or know what’s going on for the person in his/her life. Even if the employee has been rumored to have been saying negative things about you, clear any assumptions from your mind related to your emotional response to the rumors. For example, avoid approaching the discussion with these types of thoughts: “The person does not think I’m a good supervisor/manager.” “The person does not want to work with me.” “The person does not like me.” “The person isn’t happy in the job any longer.” Bottom line: try to remove your ego from the discussion.

Clear your mind of assumptions related to past experiences with the person.       Attempt to approach the discussion with an objective and clear mind. Even           when an employee says things that are personally derogatory about you, it’s         often not really about you – it’s something going on for the employee                 (insecurity/fear, illness, personal problems, etc.) Set aside your personal interest in the situation and focus your attention entirely on assisting the employee in identifying his/her need.

  1. Mix and match communication signals. If you are an animated person, prepare to soften your verbal and non-verbal communication signals: voice, tone, posture, and gestures. If you tend to be mono-tone and non-expressive, prepare to animate your voice, tone, posture, and gestures so that employees will believe you care about them. Being logical in the discussion is one aspect of your role. Balance logic and feelings.
  1. Be willing to self-disclose so people get the sense you are willing to let them know you. Depending on the discussion, you might say things such as, “I feel confused by…” or “I’m trying not to take this personally, however I’m struggling not to feel defensive about…” or “I haven’t dealt with this type of situation before, so I’m learning too…” or “I apologize for not being more sensitive in that situation, that’s one of my faults…” or “I didn’t realize that it would seem like I didn’t keep my word. Now that I understand your point of view, I can see that I dropped the ball in that situation…” If you are to be believable, it’s important in this situation that you don’t speak in clichés or exaggerations. Communicate with sincerity.
  1. Start the discussion by thanking the person for meeting with you. This should be a genuine expression on your part because many people will call in sick or invent some distraction when faced with “the talk”. “Thank you for meeting with me today. I care about you and what you do matters to me.” Or “Thank you for meeting with me today. You’ve worked for [this company/organization] for a long time and I value your experience.” Modify your statement to fit the situation and person.
  1. Provide context specific to the discussion with that employee:
    1. I’m concerned because it seems like maybe something has happened to alter your job satisfaction.
    2. I’m confused because I thought we had a positive work relationship and now I’m feeling like I may have done something to impact our relationship, and I don’t know what that is.
    3. I’m feeling like I want to assist you in making things more positive, but I don’t know what you need.
  1. State your goal/intention:
    1. I’d like to find out what’s going on for you so that I can be sure that you are happy in your job.
    2. It’s my intention to have an effective working relationship with you, so we need to talk about your experience and what you need from a supervisor/manager.
    3. I need you to tell me what happened so that I don’t have to guess. If I guess, I’ll probably be wrong and that won’t help either one of us. Once I understand what happened, I can work with you to figure out what you need.
  1. Lay out the facts as you understand them. Avoid editorializing or inserting your opinion. This part of the conversation is a sensitive balancing act. You may want to utilize a “lead in” statement that acknowledges the discomfort in the situation.
    1. I know this is uncomfortable for us to talk about, but based on what employees are telling me, you and I need to discuss some of the things you’ve been saying about me.

First, I want to be sure that I’m working with accurate information. Is it accurate that you’ve been telling team members that…?

Or: “You may not be comfortable telling me what you’ve been saying and that’s okay. It’s not so important to me to find out exactly what you’ve been saying. It is important to me to learn why you’ve been saying things that undermine my role – or indicate to team members that we don’t get along. First, I need to make sure that I’m working with accurate information. Is it accurate that you have been…

Another approach – apology lead in: “I’m sorry that it’s taken me several weeks to address this situation. Initially I thought it was best that I wait for you to come to me and request a meeting. Finally I realized that you might be struggling and it’s up to me to schedule a meeting with you. Two team members have let me know that you are saying things that indicate you have an issue with my leadership style. What can you tell me about that?”

Another approach is to admit that you don’t really know what the facts are and use a lead in that sets up a completely open discussion: “I’ve heard that you are questioning my ability to do my job; however, I’m the type of person who believes I can’t really know what’s going on unless I hear it directly from you. What can you tell me to help me understand what you’ve been saying and why you’ve been saying it?”

Another example: “I’ve heard that you are not being respectful to (name of co-worker). However, I’m the type of person who likes to hear both sides of a situation and then I figure the truth is somewhere in the middle. What can you tell me about your working relationship with (name/me)? If there has been difficulty, why do you think that’s happening?

  1. Avoid inserting your own opinions into the discussion by way of yes/no questions or multiple choice options. For example, don’t think, “If I acted like that, it would be because I don’t like my job anymore,” and then don’t ask, “Why don’t you like your job any more?” (assumption) or, “Do you still like you job?” (yes/no). Those types of questions take the conversation to a level other than discovery discussion.

Multiple choice options to avoid might sound like  Are you angry or upset?

Are you wanting my job or hoping that someone else will become manager?

Have you decided you want to leave our team, or are you hoping to get transferred to another department?

  1. LISTEN – demonstrate patience when listening. Stay calm and focused on one topic at a time. Feedback: “Let me make sure that I understand: instead of…you would prefer that I….
    1. Or: “To be sure that I understand your request: when I’m making the schedule it would be easier for you if I….
    2. Or: “You decided to talk with your co-workers because you didn’t feel you could come to me. What have I done to make you feel uncomfortable talking with me directly?”
    3. Or: “I understand that you think…. What have I done to give you that impression?”
  1. Use “I” statements to express differences of opinion or perspective.
    1. “Thank you for sharing your perspective. Now I have a better understanding of what has been happening and why it’s been happening. I have a different perspective and I’d like to share that with you so that we can understand each other.”

Don’t: “You’re wrong about that, that’s not what happened.”

Another example: “My experience has been different from yours and I’d like to share that with you so we can understand each other.” Along those same lines: “Because you and I have different roles in the company, we see the situation differently.”

  1. If it’s appropriate to share an opinion, state it as such: “In my opinion…” Do not state your opinion as if it is a fact more true that the other person’s opinion. Avoid stating your opinion in the form of a question: “Don’t you think it would be better to…?” or “Did it ever occur to you that you should…?”
  1. Avoid telling the employee what to think/feel: “You shouldn’t feel that way…” or “Everyone else thinks…”
  1. Once you have learned about the employee’s perspective/experience, adopt a problem-solving approach to the discussion. “Okay, let’s figure out what we can do to make this better.”
  1. Utilize language that demonstrates common ground and cooperation. “It’s clear that we both care about our jobs and are trying to do our best.” Or, “It’s clear that we are both focused on providing the best service/product for our customers, so let’s combine our ideas and see what we can come up with.”
  1. Define next steps and agreement: “How would you like to…” or “What do you think about…”
  1. Schedule a follow-up meeting: “Let’s see how things go for the next couple of weeks and then I’d like to talk with you again to make sure we’ve worked this out.”
  1. End the discussion with forward-looking goodwill. “I appreciate your time. I think we can work this out and I’m glad you are on our team.” Or “Thank you for your time. I feel like we are on the right track. I’ll see you tomorrow!”
  1. Review: identify what worked and what didn’t work in the discussion. Keep doing what works. Modify what doesn’t work. Be clear that what works with one person might not work for the next person.

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