Build More Meaningful Personal Relationships at Work

This Simple Gesture Can Help You Build More Meaningful Personal Relationships at Work

Taking notes about people's personal lives might feel strange -- but the results can be transformative.

By Emma BrudnerDirector of People Operations,

Anyone who's worked with me knows that I don't have the greatest memory. They also know that I take notes -- about everything. (These two things are not unrelated.) 

A third fact about me? It's incredibly important that I show my coworkers I care personally about them -- and especially the people who report to me. 

When I first became a manager and had only a couple direct reports, I would start every one-on-one meeting by asking about them as a person -- their values, their lives, their weekend plans -- and it wasn't hard at all to remember these tidbits of information. Over time, I became as familiar with the facts of their personal lives (to the extent they felt comfortable sharing with me) as I was with my own.

But as I started to manage more and more people, I began to mix up who had a dog and who had a cat. Which person's family lived nearby, and whose lived hours away. 

I always felt terrible in these situations, even if my direct reports assured me it wasn't a "big deal." But I refused to let myself off the hook -- I reasoned that if someone is kind enough to share a piece of themselves with you, you need to show you value that information by remembering. I resolved to find a better way. 

The breakthrough moment was embarrassingly simple. I've always kept a Google doc for each of my one-on-ones to write out my agenda items and record follow-up action items. 

In a particularly packed one-on-one, I was listening to my direct report while simultaneously taking notes -- typing more or less stream of consciousness. In the final minutes we talked about weekend plans, and when I reviewed the Google doc hours later, I realized I had unwittingly jotted a note about a day trip they were going on amid all the work-related items! When we were sitting down for our next one-on-one after another hectic week, the note refreshed my memory, and I started off the meeting by asking "So, how was camping?"

The look on their face spoke volumes.

Since that day, I've taken notes on the personal facts about my coworkers just as diligently as I do about work-related items -- and I tag them with "personal" in my Google doc so I can quickly ctrl+F to refresh my memory. While it felt strange at first, it's been invaluable in building personal relationships with my colleagues -- not to mention that there's research indicating the act of writing notes actually improves memory. Win-win. 

Want to try this hack with your relationships? Start by sprinkling a few of these questions into each one-on-one:

  • How are you -- as a person?
  • What and/or who is important to you in your life?
  • What's something outside of work that you're excited about?

  • What makes you you?

  • What's your next vacation? 

  • What's your favorite book / movie / podcast / band?

  • What do you wish more people understood about you?

  • How can I be the best supporter of you -- both in and out of work?

Listen carefully to the answers and then jot a note -- or use your preferred memory device.

Especially for folks with large teams or less-than-stellar memories (like myself), this simple process might make a big impact on your relationships.