Preparation and Taking Notes for 1-on-1s

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[This post is part of a series on organizing conversations.]

Intro

“Why do you need to prepare for 1-on-1s? You’re just building relationships aren’t you?” A good 1-on-1 is worth far more than a few mediocre 1-on-1s, and a bad 1-on-1 is worse than no 1-on-1 at all. Anyone who’s had a bad 1-on-1 and been able to look back and see what went wrong and what could have been done differently should intuitively know the value of preparation and how it can help you make the most of your organizing conversations.

This is a nuts-and-bolts guide for how to make 1-on-1s successful through preparation and follow through. One disclaimer I want to note is that if you’re new to having organizing conversations, try not to be intimidated by all of this. Borrow some ideas below that seem helpful and try them out but don’t worry about doing everything perfectly or implementing all of these techniques at once. With patience and practice you’ll find out what works best for you.

Preparation

Everyone organizes their thoughts in different ways, but I submit that almost every organizer would benefit from thinking things through and writing some things down. This helps you be strategic and intentional instead of scattered and aimless. Organizing is complex and, just like the practice of any science or art, can become more focused when you develop thoughts in writing where they are less liable to be forgotten or mixed up. Here I describe some of the systems for organizing my thoughts that I’ve borrowed from others and developed myself, but of course the details of my own systems are much less important than the ideas behind them that could be realized in a number of ways.

The kind of preparation you do will be highly dependent on the kind of 1-on-1 you’re having, and below I discuss a wide variety of kinds of 1-on-1s to illustrate the diversity of circumstances that preparation can be applied to (see here for a blog post describing different kinds of 1-on-1s in more detail).

Setting Goals for 1-on-1s

In some kinds of 1-on-1s, the aim is clear. For example, in a union recognition campaign you might sit down with a coworker with the desired goal of getting them to sign a union authorization card.

But in a first 1-on-1 with a new coworker my goals might be more open and fluid, where maybe it turns into more of a relationship-building 1-on-1 where we just get to know each other or maybe it takes a sharp turn to deeply felt grievances where you want to come up with at least the beginnings of a plan with them to address the problem. Even in these more fluid 1-on-1 situations, I still think preparation is important even if you have to be open to things going totally different than you anticipate.

At the very least, I like to have a solid idea of the goals of a 1-on-1 before I start taking further preparatory notes. If the goals themselves are complicated, I might need to write those down to so I don’t lose track of them.

Preparatory Notes

The amount of preparation I put into a 1-on-1 depends on how important and how difficult I expect it to be. A monthly coffee date I have with a long-time coworker may require very little in terms of preparation while a first 1-on-1 with a socially prominent coworker who’s been openly ambivalent or critical towards the union could demand lots of preparation.

For less demanding 1-on-1s, I usually just write down some topics I want to discuss along with questions I think would be important to ask. I often just use a notepad or notebook to scribble some simple notes in. Workplaces are complex, and in a 1-on-1 it’s very easy to forget to ask about this or that thing even though it might be important, so I find that writing down what I think would be good to touch on prevents me from losing track of them.

Prep Notes

This is the kind of typical preparatory notes I take 15 minutes before an easier 1-on-1.

For more challenging 1-on-1s, I usually write out my notes in more detail and do so in a word document where I can easily re-write my thoughts. In this preparation, I might write sample questions for each step of AEIOU that would be appropriate for the particular person I’ll be talking with (agitate, educate, inoculate, organize, uplift, described here).

Prep Notes2

These are the kinds of notes I take the morning of or the day before a more important 1-on-1 where I want to touch on numerous complex topics (e.g., workplace grievances, union contract campaign). If you look closely, you can see that the questions here loosely follow AEIOU, and for even more challenging 1-on-1s I might draw out those different steps explicitly in my preparation.

If one part of an upcoming 1-on-1 looks particularly challenging, I’ll reach out to another organizer to brainstorm with them. Asking someone to formally join the union or come to an action can feel risky or make me lose my confidence, and I recently talked about this with an organizer friend in preparation for a 1-on-1. I’ve asked a lot of people to join dues-paying organizations before but sometimes I still get deer-in-the-headlights feelings when I’m in the moment and find myself not knowing what to say. Interpersonal dynamics vary widely and a phrase that works with one person in one context might not be appropriate for someone else or in a different context. In the conversation with a co-organizer I wrote down the following phrase because I liked it and wanted to use it, “If you’d like to talk about what it means to join I’d be happy to talk more with you about it, but no pressure if you’re not feeling it right now.”

Roleplays

Roleplaying 1-on-1 conversations is really helpful in a training context when first learning about organizing conversations. Roleplaying is also helpful if you’re doing a lot of 1-on-1s that have the same script or end goal. In community organizing this is what door-to-door canvassing often relies on. In labor organizing, a staff organizer might develop a precise script for a small group of organizers to use with all 1000 workers at a hospital in a contract campaign. When engaging in similar conversations repeatedly using the same script, roleplaying the script and common challenges you encounter can help you get everything very fine-tuned and efficient. For example, Jane McAlevey is famous for writing about the campaigns she runs at large employers as an outside organizer. When needing to 1-on-1 100s or 1000s of workers in a limited time frame, she would get together each morning and roleplay the script with the other organizers to stay sharp and keep troubleshooting problems as they came up in their 1-on-1s.

When doing workplace organizing as a worker yourself, you’re typically not using scripts with your coworkers or trying to blitz through all of them. When doing worker-to-worker organizing especially outside of the context of a large-scale campaign, often you have much more developed relationships with coworkers and each relationship has its own unique history and dynamics, so scripts and accompanying roleplays are typically not as useful.

“Plans are useless…”

A frequent objection I hear from people newer to organizing is that plans are not worthwhile because nothing ever goes according to plan anyway. I agree that the plans I lay out almost never play out as I prepared for them, but usually some part of the plan is still applicable. Far more important than the plan itself is the strategic thinking I did to create the plan in the first place, so even if the circumstances in a 1-on-1 change and the original plan becomes irrelevant, I still have underlying strategic ideas to fall back on and help guide me. This sentiment is captured in one of my favorite quotes to apply to organizing: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

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Follow-up Notes

After a 1-on-1, I’ve found it invaluable to take notes on what we talked about. When I’m having organizing conversations of various kinds with lots of different people, I easily find myself forgetting the details of these conversations, mixing up who said what, and losing track of important threads that connect with other people. The goal of taking notes on 1-on-1s is not to memorize other people’s personal details for your own sake, but to avoid forgetting things that people said that are important to them. If as an organizer you can’t remember what people told you they care about, people might secretly and rightly suspect that you don’t value their thoughts and concerns. I have not-great short-term memory to begin with, and in the midst of talking to lots of people over the course of the years I spend at a particular job my memory quickly reaches its limits and I need to use external tools to help me remember.

Keeping notes is important to helping make connections between what different people experience and think, and this is a crucial part of organizing. For example, maybe a few coworkers like playing soccer and that would be a good idea for an informal social for people to get to know each other better. Maybe two coworkers have both expressed how the lack of sufficient parental leave is complicating their plans of having kids and if you connected them they might be interested in organizing together around that issue.

It’s good not to take notes on things that are personal though, as doing so would often amount to a betrayal of someone’s need for privacy.

I make sure to take post-1-on-1 notes before the day is over so I don’t forget things. I organize my notes from 1-on-1s in a spreadsheet so it’s easy to review and find info when I need it. Whenever I do a 1-on-1 with someone I have notes on from before, I review my previous notes to jog my memory and help inform my preparatory notes. It’s also good to anonymize people’s names in your notes, maybe using just their initials or nickname. You should make sure whatever medium you use for notes is secure and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Just as asking questions and active listening are essential tools for organizing, so is remembering what people care about. Without being able to remember things with the help of notes, a lot of good questions and careful listening can go to waste.

Conclusion

I understand the hesitation many feel about taking notes for and on conversations. If someone wanted to be manipulative, they’d surely take copious notes in order to track everything about people to use to coerce or blackmail them later. However, if someone wants to be an effective organizer, keeping track of lots of information is essential and one can do so in a way that preserves privacy, trust, and respect. All organizing tools are fundamentally about navigating human relationships and these tools can be used for good or bad ends. Avoiding using organizing tools altogether because of their potential for harm ignores their potential for good as well.

Organizers can organize their thoughts and memories through taking notes to help prepare and follow-through. These are just more tools in the organizing toolkit we can use to advance towards collective goals.