How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part III

Problem-Solving Guide Part 3

The difference between the Explore and Specify stage is that in the Explore phase, your questions are more general, whereas the Specify stage wants to investigate certain topics deeper. The methods in this stage are:

  • Ask for Examples
  • Specify Generalized Locations and Time Points
  • Active Listening
  • Ask for the Top 3 Situations

Ask for Examples

Examples help you make abstract situations concrete and give you additional support when you try to pinpoint a possible solution at a later stage. Imagine your employee told you that she felt unheard during team meetings. Although this is a very important piece of information, you still do not really know what exactly “unheard” means. If you ask for an example, however, you will be getting additional information and a better feeling for certain expressions.

Specify Generalized Locations and Time Points

Generalized locations and time points are phrases such as ’all the time’, ’everywhere’, ’the whole day’, ’for a long time’, or ’the whole office’. In most of the cases, they are too abstract to frame a clear situation and need a better definition. When did it start? When did it end? How many times? In which period? Are there specific events that trigger the situation?

Ask for the Top 3 Situations

This is a similar approach to asking for examples but stronger related to the situational side. Some people find it hard to come up with a concrete example. Based on my experience, this changes when you rephrase your question, for example, “Tell me the worst situation in the past two weeks”. Looking for extreme examples is easier for some people. In an open question, you need to recall all past situations but also need to find “the best” example that reflects your current situation or emotional state — this can be difficult. However, when asking for the worst (or best) situations, you remove the latter, which facilitates the decision-making process and you get better results.

Active Listening

Active listening is a very complex topic and I will try to aggregate the information as best as possible and will provide a deeper guide on this in another post.

Let’s start with the definition first because there is usually a lot of confusion around this topic. Passive listening means that you are just listening to the words of a speaker. This means the person is left alone with his/her problem because the listener does not provide any reaction at all. Active listening, however, you communicate with the speaker and help him/her to phrase his/her problem, enable an open dialogue, and facilitate reflective thinking.

There are three different forms of active listening with different levels of depth: Repeating, paraphrasing, and reflecting. The simplest form, repeating, is the repetition of words that you just heard back to the person. Nothing more. I would not recommend using this technique because it doesn’t sound very elaborate, and there are better ways to listen actively. Paraphrasing goes one step further by using different words of the just heard. The usage of different words has two effects: First, you may abstract the information to another level, which automatically functions as a communication check: Did I understand the information correctly? Second, you generate trust on the employee side because you’re showing that you want to understand the topic. The deepest and most difficult form of active listening is reflecting. In this form of listening, you compress the received information to an underlying construct, such as a need, motivation, or goal. As you might guess, you need to be proficient at listening and verbalizing in order to make use of this technique. When used properly, you will be able to give your One-on-Ones an enormous uplift in efficiency and effectiveness. I will provide a guide on how to train your skills in active listening soon.


“Can you give me an example when you are getting bored?”

“Hm, as I said, it is more like an overall feeling.” 

“So there is not a single minute you enjoy in the company.”

“No, I wouldn’t say that, actually. It is difficult for me to describe.”

“Maybe you can tell me about your top two boring situations in the past week. This helps to figure out how to change the situation.”
[Asking for the “top x” events mostly helps to get around ‘everything is bad’ phrases]

“I had to write a couple of scripts for the BI department that connect the data of the marketing team with the data team. I did this a hundred times now and I think the other two working students could have done this as well. The second event was setting the fifth version of a reporting presentation for the C-level. We changed this so many times in the past…it is detailed but monotonous work.”

“It also sounds as if you were frustrated.”
[Paraphrasing the emotion that I perceive to see if I am right and if I can get some additional information]

“Sure! I am just feeling like a small gear in a big machine. Everybody could do this work.”

“This sounds like two different topics to me.”

“Hm, what do you mean?”

“A small gear in a big machine can still be unique. I mean, you might feel like a small piece in a big machine, but you can still be so good at your task that nobody can replace you in the same way. On the other hand, maybe everybody can do your task but this task still can be extremely essential.”

“Yeah, that’s actually true.”

“Let’s try to summarize where we are so we don’t get lost, and please correct me when I am wrong. Your learning progress is beyond your expectations and you feel bored at work. This started two weeks ago and it might be connected to the promotion of your friend. Your current problem seems to split in two parts:
First, you feel lost in the company and second, some or all of your tasks can be done by everybody. Your feelings in topic two are unclear to me right now to be honest. Maybe we can continue from there?”

[Summarize the event, including paraphrasing]

“Yes, that’s close to how I feel. I wouldn’t say I am lost, it’s more about I am missing a real purpose in the company.“

“Thanks for clarifying. What about your feelings on topic number two?”

“Actually, I think this is just the frustration that I do not learn anything new. Not all of my tasks can be done by everybody…but there are a lot of tasks that could be done by somebody who is less experienced. But I can’t learn anything new if my schedule is full with these kinds of tasks.”

“This sounds to me as if not only want to learn but also want more responsibilities.”
[Paraphrasing]

“When I think about it, yes, that’s right.”

“Just out of curiosity: Looking back to the promotion of your friend – maybe you realized that she will be getting more responsibilities while you are still doing the same tasks over and over instead of moving forward.”

“Actually, that’s quite accurate. A promotion with a set of new responsibilities would definitely change my current situation at work.”


>> Proceed to Part IV: Connect

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