How Student Affairs Professionals Can Make One-on-Ones Rewarding and Productive

If there is anything that you can count on as a student affairs professional, it’s having meetings. 

Often, these meetings are one-on-ones with your staff wherein you spend a great deal of time helping them develop both personally and professionally. 

While some one-on-ones can be highlights of your day, they can also be extremely stressful — considering how much thought must go into making the time productive. From the uncomfortable silences that may permeate the room… to the conversations you might have about stress, these meetings can quickly begin to feel like therapy sessions. 

But, fortunately, there are ways to turn a meeting that could be viewed as a frustration into a meeting of productivity. Here are some ideas from my own experience. 

6 Tips

1. Prepare

One of the most common concerns for one-on-one meetings is the difficulty of connecting with staff of a different generation.

Because most of our communication is now done via smartphone or computer, it can be uncomfortable to sit face-to-face with someone for a long period of time and converse without distractions. It can be especially difficult to have a deep and meaningful meeting if you don’t have a strong relationship with the person you’re meeting with. 

According to Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, having productive and meaningful one-on-ones involves asking yourself strategic questions like, “Are we focused on the right things?” or “What is my understanding of my cognitive agility and is it meeting the needs of those I serve?”. 

Then, you can begin thinking about ways to make these meetings fun, engaging, and motivational. 

2. Get to know your supervisees

A very common mistake is not learning the communication style or personality of the people you supervise. Many of them, including student employees, may already be overwhelmed by the amount of work that comes with their positions. So, adding a one-on-one to their schedule may make them not only worried but fearful, too. 

One smart strategy is to ask the supervisee (prior to the meeting) what they think will be the best use of your time together. 

Some staff might wish for affirmations of their good work, while others might view your one-on-ones as just another task to complete. Checking in with them before the meeting and asking, “What do you need during this time and how can my expertise add to this?” opens the door to communication, something that is often the greatest barrier to effective meetings. 

3. Let staff lead the way 

Professionals often over-prepare for these meetings. They might lead the conversation with too many action items rather than letting the supervisee drive the conversation. 

Starting the meeting off with questions like, ”What has been a high for you this week?” or “Tell me about your low and what I can do to support you?” allows the supervisee to feel like you genuinely care about them and their work. Allowing supervisees to self-report back to you allows them to play an active role in their own development.

You can also ask your supervisees to prepare a list of things they want to discuss during each meeting. Challenging them to think about what they want to get out of the meeting allows them to retain ownership of both the time and the experience of each one-on-one. 

Often, staff members just want to have a safe space to feel like they can be heard, rather than being constantly reminded about tasks and responsibilities. 

4. Know where they stand

One-on-one meetings can be tricky with staff whom you lack interpersonal connections. 

One of the best ways to overcome the angst or discomfort is to think about short-term and long-term goals. Are there any fears that might follow your staff member in their work? Doubts that you might be able to help them overcome? Is there anything that brings them joy that you might be able to center the conversation around?

By knowing these things at the beginning of each of your meeting, you’ll allow yourself the opportunity to focus on the needs of your staff members, rather than on the feelings you have about the meeting itself. 

5. Allow space for emotions

Remember: One-on-ones do not always have to be about work. Allow time for your supervisee to talk about things they may fear sharing in your larger staff meeting. Give them space to break down their concerns.

And also ask them what you can do to lift them up. Ask about their home life. Give them a chance to talk about the things that make them tick, then find commonalities. 

Keep in mind that students are often dealing with more than what they share — even in one-on-ones. So if you can make the meetings feel like a safe space, chances are you will get more out of the meetings than what you might assume. 

6. Expand beyond the ordinary 

Lastly, remember that one-on-ones don’t always have to be traditional meetings in your office. Lunch dates, study sessions, or even helping them with a project can count as a one-on-one. 

One of the best, if not the most effective way to get the most out of your meetings is to change up the scenery. Having your meeting at a cafe or offering to help run an errand with your staff member tells them that you are interested in who they are outside of the position. 

Continue to remind yourself and your supervisees that one-on-ones are more than just meetings. They’re a chance for you both to stretch and grow. 

How have you made your one-on-ones shine? We’d love to learn your tactics and stories @HelloPresence.


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Jonathan Higgins

About the author: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins is a speaker, writer, and activist with over 10 years of student affairs experience. Their work focuses on race & identity and ways to better support marginalized students while eradicating oppression. Follow them on Twitter: @DoctorJonPaul. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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