Building rapport in one-on-one meetings

Marlo Oster

Dreading an upcoming meeting with your manager is an all-too-familiar feeling, and dread is (hopefully!) the last thing you want to inspire in your team. Building rapport mitigates the intimidation factor in your one-on-one meetings and enables open communication between managers and individual team members.

Building a solid, friendly rapport with employees is essential to a productive one-on-one meeting. Learn more about the importance of building rapport and how you can do it successfully.

The importance of one-on-one meetings

One-on-one meetings are the foundation of the employee-manager relationship, and they are essential to a healthy, productive team. They’re the chief opportunity to build a strong connection with individual members of your team. One-on-ones also provide the space to discuss important aspects of the job that wouldn’t normally or shouldn’t be discussed as a group.

Regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings improve team engagement, provide a safe space to give feedback, track projects and goals, strengthen relationships, and keep you accountable to one another.

A team can’t function if they don’t trust their leader. Supporting your team is one of the most important responsibilities of a manager, if not the most important. Regular one-on-one meetings keep your team engaged and committed to consistent improvement.

💡 Learn more about the importance and best practices of one-on-one meetings: Manager’s guide to one-on-one meetings.

What does it mean to build rapport?

Building rapport means developing a friendly connection with another person. Bonding over shared interests like cooking, sports, or movies and TV are simple and effective ways to build rapport with someone. If you don’t share any immediate interests, asking someone about one of their interests also builds rapport.

Why is building rapport in one-on-one meetings important?

A one-on-one meeting is the most effective space for a manager to build trust and rapport with an employee, and a friendly, comfortable connection is essential to a productive one-on-one meeting.

It can be difficult for managers and employees to build rapport because of the clear power dynamic. Right off the bat, both of you are forced to be aware of the role you play in each other’s lives. But you can maintain decorum while still being friendly and getting to know the other person.

If the employee doesn’t trust you or has any reason to be cynical of your intentions, one-on-one meetings won’t be productive. They’ll become a chore that neither of you looks forward to, and it will quickly diminish team morale.

This is why building a connection with each team member through one-on-one meetings is so important. Trust is the most important element of any relationship. Building rapport establishes that trust. You’re there to facilitate productivity by supporting your team and offering guidance. Your team needs to know you’re there for them. They need to be comfortable with you. As the saying goes: people leave managers, not companies.

Distributed teams that can’t meet face to face may struggle to build rapport over a video or voice call. Acknowledge that struggle, especially if the one-on-one is over the phone. You must work extra hard to establish and maintain trust with your remote workforce. Consider virtual team building activities, pay close attention to communication preferences, and ask about the employee’s interests outside of work.

How to build rapport in one-on-one meetings

Lead with empathy

In order to build rapport with someone, you need to be able to see things from their point of view. What makes them tick? How are their life experiences different from yours, and how might that shape their perspective? Remember—empathy is all about walking in someone else’s shoes and understanding their emotional experience.

Understanding and balancing the varying emotions of your team is an essential part of being a manager. How will a team member feel about having a one-on-one meeting with you? Will they be intimidated or excited? If they are bubbly and enthusiastic, match that enthusiasm. If the team member is shy, do what you can to put them at ease. Keep in mind that it’s not always easy to have a one-on-one with your manager, so remember to approach the meeting from that perspective.

Before the meeting, consider the emotional needs of the employee and adapt accordingly. The conversation will be a lot smoother for both of you if you understand each other.

Consider communication preferences

How does the person on the other side of the meeting prefer to communicate? Do they like to talk about their personal life, or do they prefer to keep things private? Do they despise or enjoy a little small talk?

If the person you’re speaking with is shy or reserved, match that style. Being loud and abrasive will make that person feel uncomfortable, leading to awkward, stilted one-on-one meetings that the employee will dread.

Communication preferences tend to reveal themselves over the course of a conversation, so pay close attention to how confidently the employee speaks, their body language, and their word choice. Matching their communication style will help build rapport.

You also don’t need to leave it up to your powers of observation. Personality tests provide key insight into what makes people tick, and they can be a fun in-person or virtual team building activity. Consider asking your team to complete a personality test, such as Enneagrams, DiSC, or the Big Five, and discuss the results to learn how everyone prefers to communicate.

Find common ground

Finding common ground is an essential step toward building rapport. Sometimes this occurs naturally, like when you meet someone with a shared interest or sense of humor. If someone likes the same sports team or television show as you, it’s easy to consistently spark interesting conversations, and it’s an excellent way to break the ice before getting down to business.

If you don’t have an immediate connection with someone, learning about one of their interests and asking them about it builds rapport. It’s easy for people to talk about the things they like. So if you know that the employee you’ll be speaking with is a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, checking on the score of the previous hockey game and commiserating about the loss is a good way to find common ground.

Schedule one-on-ones with consistency

Make one-on-one meetings a regular thing. This will help you build and maintain a rapport with team members. The consistency will help people feel more comfortable so that one-on-ones are a habit rather than a surprise.

When one-on-ones are sporadic, people will wonder why you’re asking to meet with them. Did they do something wrong? Is it a performance review? Are they being fired? Regularly scheduled meetings, whether weekly or monthly, reduce many of the fears associated with one-on-ones. Ensure your team understands why you are scheduling one-on-one meetings and the importance of these key check-ins.

The secondary benefit to consistency is the natural rapport you build. The more often you speak to a team member, the more comfortable you become with one another. You’ll continue to uncover new common ground and topics you both enjoy.

Provide thoughtful feedback (and be willing to receive it)

We’ve all had managers who only commented on our job performance when they were criticizing us. Don’t be that manager. There are already enough of them out there.

Constructive feedback prevents stagnation and helps employees grow. Consistently providing feedback keeps it from ever being a surprise. Build it into your one-on-ones so your team expects feedback every time.

💡 Read our guide to giving constructive feedback.

Encourage your employees and be enthusiastic about their development in and out of the workplace. If there are issues with their performance, address them tactfully and offer ways forward. If they’re performing optimally, let them know how impressed you are with their work.

Ask your team for feedback too. There’s always room for improvement on both sides. If a team member has an issue with your management strategy, you need to hear them out and be open to what they have to say.

It also doesn’t need to be as serious as that. For example, get feedback about when you schedule the one-on-one meeting. Is your team member a morning person? Maybe they drive their kids to school Monday morning, so Tuesday is better. Let them know you’re willing to adapt to their schedule. It’s important that they be as comfortable as possible to enable a productive and honest conversation.

💡 Create a culture of constant improvement and structured continuous feedback with Charma.

Keep notes to help you remember

If an employee shares a detail about what’s going on in their lives, it’s important to remember it. Since memories can be unreliable, jot the information down after the meeting. The notes you leave for yourself could be as simple as remembering a TV show they said they were watching or remembering to ask about a sick loved one.

If a team member tells you that their child is excited because they have their first loose tooth, ask about it at your next meeting. If they mention they’re working on a big project, ask how it‘s going when you speak next. If they recommended a movie or television show, tell them what you thought of it and ask for another recommendation.

Before your next meeting, take a moment to review any notes you jotted down after the last one. This will get you up to speed on previous conversations, so you can continue from where you left off. Remembering small details shows employees that you care about what they said and were paying attention.

Continue to adapt

It’s important to keep in mind that we’re all individuals; each of your team members is unique and will approach the one-on-one in a different way. Corralling and guiding a group of complex human beings is what makes being a manager especially challenging.

Not all of these tips will work for each of your team members, but learning how to adapt your communication style to suit each person is the most valuable soft skill a manager can develop.

One-on-one meetings with Charma

Building a solid, friendly rapport is essential to a productive one-on-one meeting. A one-on-one meeting and a solid rapport can’t exist without each other — a one-on-one meeting is the best place to build rapport, and one-on-one meetings won’t be productive without that rapport.

Charma can help. Charma is the best practice toolkit for managers to organize, motivate, and engage their teams, beloved by managers, HR, executives, and ICs alike. Find tools and AI to help you manage agendas for both one-on-one meetings and team meetings, action items, team collaboration, 360 reviews, continuous feedback & recognition, and goals — all in one place.

Check out our resources for articles, guides, and success stories dedicated to running efficient and effective teams. If you have any questions about anything you read or how to utilize Charma, reach out to our team at any time.

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