Emotional intelligence: 8 ways to improve your one-on-one meetings

Are you showing emotional intelligence in your meetings with direct reports? Practice these behaviors to up your leadership EQ
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Humans crave feedback. The feedback we’re given as children – from our parents, teachers, and role models – shapes how we perceive ourselves well into adulthood. And while the debate rages on regarding how different styles of feedback impact kids, a similar discussion has bubbled up in leadership circles: Does feedback work, and if so, how much is right? Is the movement toward “radical candor” helping individuals improve? Or does it create unnecessary tension, competition, and defensive behavior in the workplace? Can too much empathy be destructive to progress?

Leaders have little choice in whether or not to give feedback to their direct reports. In one-on-one discussions, individuals look to their leader to determine if they are going in the right direction and pursuing the right goals. While theories on workplace feedback will keep evolving, leaders can rely on one critical skill to make their one-on-one meetings more productive regardless of the feedback style they choose: emotional intelligence.

“Emotionally intelligent people want to know that their boss is emotionally intelligent as well,” says Jonathan Feldman, CIO of the city of Asheville, NC. “That usually translates into wanting to see some self-awareness. Phrases like ‘I was wrong,’ ‘Oh, you’re right,’ and ‘I fell short on that one by not doing XYZ’ help employees know that.”

[ Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

Here are eight ways to bring more emotional intelligence to your meetings with direct reports.

1. Always set an agenda

Uncertainty can lead to a rather big emotion: Fear.

Emotionally intelligent leaders can regulate and control their own emotions, but they know that not everyone possesses this skill. And uncertainty can lead to a rather big emotion: Fear. Be proactive in setting an agenda to quell any unnecessary fears, experts say.

“Managers need to be great at setting expectations so that the other person knows exactly what is required of them,” suggests Colin D. Ellis, author of The Conscious Project Leader. This is not a skill that managers are taught, he says, but it’s worth learning – before you need to have a tough unexpected conversation.

“Any meeting, even a one-on-one with a team member, can benefit from an agenda,” add Drew Bird, founder at The EQ Development Group. “Even if it’s just short list on a sticky note, it lets both parties know what is going to be discussed and creates some comfort about what is ahead. It’s also a great way of not missing something and also managing time. Ideally, you’d collaboratively create the agenda at the beginning of the meeting so you both get an opportunity to talk about things important to you.”

2. Keep progress and performance meetings separate

There’s a big difference between a regular “check-in” meeting and a feedback-heavy performance discussion. Keep them totally separate, advises Bird.

“If you need to have a performance conversation, don’t use a regular one-on-one progress meeting to do that. Try and make the regular one-on-one progress meetings generative, neutral spaces. If you use regular one-on-one meetings for raising a performance concern, your team member will become guarded of the regular progress meeting, as they will be unsure what’s going to get discussed.”

3. Start with positivity

We’ve all been presented with a “feedback sandwich” in our careers, and there are mixed opinions on whether it works. Tony Daniello, director of infrastructure services at Computer Design & Integration, recently told us, “If every conversation starts that way, the individual will always think there is something negative approaching whenever you give them a compliment or positive reinforcement.”

Whether you sandwich or not, starting with the positives is a great way to help individuals open up, says Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile.

"Before jumping into a one-on-one, I like to begin with positive small talk,” says Malhotra. “Something as simple as addressing a person’s recent accomplishments can raise feel-good emotions that allow them to enter a positive mental state. Not only does this help to build rapport and trust with one another, but it also allows people to broaden their perceptual experience and see things in a positive light. This positivity creates an open environment where feedback is accepted and a more productive meeting is had.”

[ Read also: 9 counterintuitive tips for dealing with people. ]

4. Put your phone away

“Even these small things can add up to a big message that you don’t really care about the other person.”

It may seem like People Skills 101, but this lesson bears repeating: Show people that you value their time by giving them your full, undivided attention.

“Show interest and commitment to the other person by being distraction-free,” says Bird. “That means no phones and no interruptions. Even a glance at your phone when it vibrates or a peek at your smartwatch sends the message that the person sitting in front of you is less important than a potential caller. You would be surprised at how even these small things can add up to a big message that you don’t really care about the other person.”

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.