Doing 1-on-1s Better—EAG Tips Part II

Context

Many EAGx and EAG conferences are coming up (EAGx Oxford March 26-27, EAGx Boston April 1-3, and EAG London April 15-17), and attendees are often encouraged to spend most of their time at the conference in 1-on-1 meetings. However, the case for why 1-on-1s are so valuable is not often clear to attendees, nor is the process for setting up 1-on-1s.

We (Kuhan and Akash) thought it would be useful to share some thoughts on why we think 1-on-1s are so valuable, who to set up meetings with, and how to get the most out of them.

Why 1-on-1s/​meetings can be one of the best uses of time

Here are a few reasons why we think 1-on-1s are often valuable:

  • 1-on-1s offer a unique opportunity to get personalized feedback and information that is helpful for your top priority questions, uncertainties, career plans, and more, unlike talks and workshops that aren’t specifically catered to you.

  • People often think better when talking to others.

    • Perhaps most importantly, you get very quick feedback loops on your thinking, which are harder to get in other formats—mistakes, alternatives, and potential improvements to your ideas and their communication can be pointed out quickly

    • They offer a uniquely good setting for asking and being asked/​answering really good questions.

    • It can be easier to stay focused when talking to someone else and being regularly required to actively contribute

    • Conversations can force you to refine your thinking and communication of ideas, since your conversation partner needs to understand what you’re saying.

    • You can incorporate new perspectives/​information from your conversation partner quickly

    • Easy accountability for ideas that come up—ideas can turn into concrete plans, which your conversation partner can provide accountability for.

  • 1-on-1s can turn into long-lasting friendships, professional connections, references/​referrals for job/​project/​internship opportunities

  • 1-on-1s provide data for how to communicate better moving forward, not just in future conversations but also for writing and presentations

    • We’ve unsurprisingly learned the most about how to talk, write, and present about EA, longtermism, AI safety, and more from many individual conversations, more so than feedback on writing/​blogposts and presentations.

Find the right people to have 1-on-1s with

Given the ways 1-on-1s can be valuable, think about who to set up 1-on-1s with. Conferences like EAG/​(x) are a great time to meet lots of people, but most community members I know are happy to have calls/​in-person meetings outside of conferences as well.

Here are a few tips to brainstorm good people to reach out to:

  • Considering your areas of expertise and background, reach out to people who might benefit a lot from talking to you. Examples might include:

    • People interested in doing something similar to your current (or a previous) work who have less experience (e.g. junior AI safety researchers or group organizers).

    • People with smaller networks who would benefit from being introduced to people in yours

    • People from your city/​university/​country if you’re a group organizer (remember to look up your city/​university/​country on Swapcard and see if there are people you should reach out to/​catch up with)

    • People who would benefit from learning how you think about important topics you have expertise in (both people who have different opinions/​models and people who haven’t thought much about the topic but would benefit a lot from learning more about it).

  • Given your most important uncertainties/​questions, reach out to the people best suited to address your most important questions/​uncertainties. It can be good to reach out to people who you expect will have complementary knowledge and perspectives (e.g. talking to both experienced people who think existential risk from transformative AI/​synthetic biology is very high and very low, or people who think movement building is a great/​terrible use of time)

  • Peers in a similar position to you—it can be very motivating to have buddies with similar interests and backgrounds to learn together, provide accountability, and become close friends (which can be harder to do when you’re a mentor/​mentee). Look for conference attendees with similar interests/​career plans/​background knowledge levels.

  • People living in EA hubs and people working at EA organizations. As Akash mentioned in this post, spending time in EA hubs and getting integrated into the professional EA network is very helpful for learning important things that often aren’t well expressed online, getting motivated to pursue full-time high-impact work, meeting highly motivated community members/​potential friends, learning about information, resources, and connections to help you have a greater impact, and improving your chances of working on high-impact projects full-time.

  • Well-connected community members who are familiar with existing opportunities (organizations, jobs/​internships, funding, project ideas, potential collaborators/​mentors), and the best resources to learn more about common topics of interest. They (we, *pats back*) can often put you in touch with someone with expertise relevant to your career plans/​biggest uncertainties, and can point you in helpful directions to learn and do more (e.g. good content to read/​listen to, and internships/​jobs/​orgs/​projects to look into).

Once you’ve decided who would be good to reach out to, reach out over e-mail/​messaging/​Swapcard (during EAGs) briefly introducing yourself and why you think talking to them might be valuable (for both parties). Some people also have Calendly/​meeting scheduling links publicly available where you can sign up for a time to chat. People are often busy, both in general and especially at EAG, so don’t take a lack of response as a strong signal that they aren’t interested in talking to you. People also often miss messages/​emails, and appreciate being bumped if they’ve forgotten to respond.

How to make your 1-on-1s as valuable as possible

Making 1-on-1s go as well as possible involves not only making the most of your time with your conversation partner, but also doing prep work ahead of the meeting, following up afterwards, and generally approaching meetings with the right mindset.

Approaching meetings with the right mindset

Spencer Greenberg illustrates the idea of listening with interested attention using the following metaphor:

Imagine you’re going to an art gallery which you’ve heard (from a reliable source) has incredible, complex art that requires effort to understand. In that circumstance, you might approach each piece of art with “interested attention”. You’re assuming there is something worth seeing there, so even if at first you don’t “get” a piece, you’re going to keep focussing on it with interest to try to uncover its value. This interest is genuine before you even know what the value is, because you’re giving the benefit of the doubt. If you start thinking about what you’re having later for lunch, or glancing ahead prematurely to the next piece of art, it’s going to interfere with the experience. The “interested attention” causes you to notice more that’s of value, but also, potentially to value more of what you notice. Contrast this with a situation where a friend dragged you unwillingly to an art gallery, and you’ve heard the art there is terrible. You may pay little attention to each piece, and view the art with little interest. If you don’t understand a piece right away, you may immediately move on to the next one. This is the opposite of “interested attention”.

For more information on listening with Interested Attention, please see Spencer Greenberg’s writeup.

We think it’s much more likely that you have a really fruitful conversation if you prepare and go into it thinking it might be quite valuable.

Preparation ahead of the meeting

  • Prepare and answer questions based on your key uncertainties and biggest bottlenecks. Brainstorm a handful of questions, both to think through yourself and that you want to ask your conversation partner. We’ve made a list of questions that we think are useful to ask in general which you can find here. Some prep questions to answer before meetings that we wanted to highlight are:

    • If this conversation ended up being one of the most valuable meetings I ever had, why and how might that have happened? What was discussed?

    • What’s something I’m afraid to ask where doing so could be really valuable (e.g. asking for a favour, or about a topic you feel you should know more about)

    • What’s my biggest bottleneck/​what’s holding me back most from achieving my goals (that I’m willing to share). How might my conversation partner be able to help?

    • What are my biggest uncertainties with respect to how I can do the most good? How can I resolve these uncertainties?

    • What are some ways I can provide lots value to my conversation partner? What are my strengths and areas of expertise? Who in my network might be good to connect with them?

    • What are some questions/​topics my conversation partner would be particularly well-suited to answer?

    • If I change your mind about something significant after talking, what might it be?

  • Think about how your conversation can benefit others. The person you’re talking to might be able to help one of your colleagues even more than they can help you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions on someone else’s behalf (see here). Similarly, someone in your network might be able to better answer some of your conversation partner’s questions than you—think about who in your network might be good to connect with your conversation partner.

  • Bring supplies. Make sure you have everything you’ll need (e.g., notebook and pen(cil)/​laptop/​phone, water bottle). In particular, we think having something to take notes with can be extremely helpful. You might have 20+ 1-on-1s during a conference… don’t count on being able to remember all the important details from each meeting.

  • Communicate in advance. Often it is helpful to share a message and/​or document with questions, uncertainties, context, and/​or a tentative agenda ahead of time to make the most of a conversation—especially if you don’t have much time to talk, as is often the case at EAG.

  • What to do if you don’t have time to prep before your meeting: Consider spending the first minute or so of the meeting thinking about how to get the most out of it, what would be most useful to discuss, and brainstorming good questions to ask.

What to do during the meeting

  • Recording your meeting (with consent)

    • You could consider recording your conversations, and using automatic transcription software (like Otter.ai) to turn conversations into written notes that you can come back to and search. (If you do this, make sure to ask for your partner’s permission!)

  • Being intentional about how you spend your time

    • Consider spending the beginning of the conversation discussing how to make the most out of it and what would make it most valuable to you. List a few topics that you’d be excited to chat about, and ask the other person to do the same.

  • Always keeping your conversation partner in mind

    • Throughout the conversation, think about whether what’s being discussed is valuable to you, your conversation partner, or ideally both. Think about whether your conversation partner has enough context to follow what you’re saying, and if what you’re saying is interesting/​useful/​funny/​kind/​etc.

  • Asking good questions and being curious

    • Oftentimes, what makes conversations particularly valuable is asking the right questions. If you were able to prepare questions ahead of time, refer to them. As mentioned earlier, we wrote up a document with questions we think are often useful to ask here. Some we wanted to highlight are:

      • Here’s my current plan for doing the most good. How would you improve it?

      • Suppose that this conversation increases your lifetime productivity/​impact/​happiness/​motivation by 2x. What happened?

      • What would you say is most holding you back, or what’s the biggest bottleneck in your life?

      • What are your biggest uncertainties regarding how to maximize your impact?

      • Imagine a plan 10x more impactful than your current one. What is it?

      • Are there any ways funding can improve your ability to improve the world (e.g. by making you more impactful/​productive/​happy/​healthy). Would you like to make a plan to apply for funding?

  • Share how can you help. Tell people what skills you have and what kinds of things you’re good at (ideally with examples). Tell people if there are ways you might be able to help them/​improve their lives.

  • Turn vague ideas into concrete plans.

    • Bad: “I want to think more about what to do with my career”

    • Better: “I’m going to go through 80k’s career advising guide, and I’m going to sign up for career coaching.

    • Even better: “I plan to finish the 80k guide by next weekend and applied for advising within 3 days. I have set aside time for each in my calendar, and will let you know once I’ve done both.”

  • Offer accountability. Examples:

    • Offer to check-in with your partner by a certain date to make sure they have completed a task.

    • Offer to schedule an email to remind them about something (and do this during the meeting).

    • Offer other solutions to increase the likelihood of follow-through on action-items (e.g. suggesting commitment mechanisms/​penalties/​rewards and offering enforcement (E.g. offering to be the person they can send messages/​proof of completion to, offering to co-work (I highly recommend Zoom coworking with shared screen), being the recipient of payment or offering a reward if a task isn’t/​is completed by a certain time.

    • Remember to bring these up tactfully and not be pushy.

  • Ask for contact information. By default, we (Kuhan and Akash) usually ask to add people on Facebook (many EAs we know primarily communicate on Facebook Messenger).

    • We recommend scheduling sending quick emails or messages during the meeting itself.

What to do after meetings:

  • Follow-up. Reminding your partner about any next steps, action items, writing a short note expressing gratitude, and offering another meeting if reasonable.

  • Send them relevant resources. Send them any readings, podcasts, videos or websites that they might find helpful.

  • Offer to introduce them to relevant people. Take a moment to think about others in your network who they might benefit from talking to. Unless otherwise specified, get permission from people before offering to put your conversation partner in contact with them.

A few miscellaneous thoughts

  • You can take breaks! One common failure mode is to forget to do things like drink water, eat, use the bathroom, or just relax.

  • The “right” number of 1-on-1s varies person-to-person. With that in mind, if you’re not sure how many to have, we recommend spending 3-8 hours in 1-on-1s each day at EA conferences.

  • Most 1-on-1s are okay, some are boring, and some are amazing. We generally expect the best 1-on-1s to be >100X more impactful than the median 1-on-1. If you have a few mediocre 1-on-1s, that’s okay (in fact, it’s normal!). We suggest that you focus on searching for outliers.

Conclusion

We hope this post (and the accompanying good questions document) can be a helpful reference to have better 1-on-1 meetings, both at EAG and in general. Some other helpful resources on 1-on-1s can be found here and here (this in particular is good to read before EAG—especially re. writing a good bio on Swapcard and reaching out with informative messages). We’d also love to hear your suggestions for how to get the most out of 1-on-1s.