Home All How to Have a Big Rocks Conversation at Work

How to Have a Big Rocks Conversation at Work

written by Kathryn Britton 10 October 2018

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

In the accompanying article about foiling the theft of time, I argued that talking about priorities is critical in one-on-one meetings between supervisors and direct reports. Here I would like to show such a conversation in action.

Wendy Guek Tin Toh

Wendy Toh (WT) was one of my favorite bosses. I (KHB) was at the senior technical staff member level at IBM when I worked for her. At this level, most bosses just let people loose… and then complain later. Wendy was different. She did not assume that I could read her mind about what was important to her.

Wendy taught me to have Big Rocks conversations.

The Big Rocks Negotiation

You’ve probably heard of the Steven Covey meme of putting big rocks in the bucket first, then the pebbles, then the sand. More goes in the bucket that way. But that doesn’t mean that everything fits. Here’s how a Big Rocks conversation might go:

WT: “What are your big rocks right now?”

KHB: “Well, I think A, B, and C are pretty important. D would be nice to get done. E is likely to fall off the plate. One of the ongoing tasks, supervising Joe, is taking a lot of time right now.”

WT: “I agree with you about A and B. But D is more important than C for the following reason […..] You are right that E can go. But you also need to work on F. It came up yesterday in a director’s meeting, and my boss wants to know what you recommend. I think F is actually more important than B, but not than A.”

Rocks come in different sizes

KHB: [After asking a few probing questions to make sure I really understand F and why it’s so important.] “OK. A, F, and B are most important, in that order. D comes next, if I have any time left over. E can go, and C too if F takes a lot of time.”

WT: “Exactly. If you run into any road blocks where I can help, let me know.”

KHB: “I need your help to finish A. I need to to talk to Z about it, and he’s not responding to my calls.”

WT: “I’ll light a fire under him. Before we finish, you did a great job in that meeting last week getting X and Y to agree on your recommendation.”

KHB: “Thanks! It was touch and go for a while, but I think I found just the right argument to bring them together.”

Wendy scheduled these Big Rocks discussions biweekly. After a few initial meetings to get the priorities straight, we could have them in 15 to 30 minutes. I found them invaluable to shape the way I spent my time. If something had to go, I knew that she would support me.

Watch the small rocks fall…

What Happened Here?

First, we both recognized that I was not likely to get everything done. Not only did I have a lot of tasks, but I also have some ongoing activities that take time but are never finished, such as mentoring other employees.

Second, Wendy determined the priority order. She owns the priorities, just as I described in the previous article.

Third, I had a chance to ask for help that she could give.

Fourth, she had a chance to let me know she’d noticed a past accomplishment.

Opening the door to big rocks

Opening the Door to Big Rocks Discussions

Suppose you are the direct report, and your manager hasn’t suggested anything like Big Rocks discussions. How could you get them started? How could you set your boundaries in a respectful way? Though I think Wendy probably suggested the Big Rocks discussions, here’s how I might have gotten them started when she became my manager.

KHB: “I trust you can see that I have more work on my plate than I can possibly get done. I will do as much as I can in a reasonable work week. I’m willing to work extra when emergencies come up, but I cannot work more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis. It’s important for me that my kids to know their mother, and I have priorities outside of work as well. So let’s work together to make sure that when items have to fall off my plate, they are the right ones.”

WT: “That works well for me. Here’s how we can manage this. You come to me every two weeks with your list of priorities. We will review them together to make sure the right tasks are on top. When I need you to work extra, I’ll tell you why it’s important, and I’ll try to make sure I give you enough lead time that you can make arrangements for your family.”

The Big Picture

Why is having Big Rocks discussions a good work practice? In the accompanying article, I argued that knowledge workers can be exploited by employers taking advantage of the cultural meme that professionals stay at work until the work gets done. Intentionally or not, employers can assign so much work that it can’t be done in a reasonable amount of time. Symptoms of this common workplace malaise are people bragging about how many hours they work and one-upping each other. “I work 50 hours a week.” “Well I work 55.” It may make people feel important, but it’s not a healthy ongoing practice.

I also argued that we can protect ourselves by having clear ideas of how much time we’re willing to spend at work and then setting boundaries to protect the time that rightfully belongs to us. Furthermore it benefits both us and our workplaces when we do so.

So how do you have the conversations that set the boundaries? You do it by speaking the language of priorities.




Britton, K. H. (2018). How to Foil the Theft of Time: Productive One-on-ones at Work. Positive Psychology News.

Covey, S. (1989, 2013). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Simon & Schuster.

Image credits
Wendy’s picture used with permission
Rocks Photo by Oliver Paaske on Unsplash
Open door Photo by alexander milo on Unsplash
Screen capture of rocks falling off cairn courtesy of Laura Britton, taken at Molera Beach

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like

1 comment

Lisa Buksbaum 10 October 2018 - 3:49 pm

Boy did I need to read this PPND “gem” of an article today. Having just returned from a business trip followed by a conference the next day my weekly to-do list (and the weekly to-do list for the team) was causing some serious consternation. Thanks for reminding us of this simple and powerful image of filling the bucket with the BIG ROCKS first, then the pebbles, followed by the sand. Your wise article also included some additional positive psychology tools such as the importance of viewing colleagues as valued people with whom we are in relationship, not merely people to extract more outcome from by thinking of them in a transactional manner. I also loved reading the article about Irene Heninger (aka YOUR MOM). She was a thoughtful and wise woman and her advice rings true today, so many years later.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com