Having spent 20+ years working in the information business, I’ve noticed two distinct groups of people; those who can consistently, accurately process information and those who seem to constantly misread, misunderstand or otherwise fail to successfully consume information.
When you have 1-2 people who occasionally misread something, that can be a small annoyance. But when you have an organization, of scores or hundreds of people, skimming written correspondence and making decisions based on an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the message/intent, that leads to mistakes, miscommunication, wasted time and rework on a large scale
Why does it happen?
My theory it is people who get complacent (aka lazy) and rather than concentrating and taking the requisite time required to internalize a message, they simply fly through it
I also think people are over-confident in their reading comprehension and they consistently over-estimate their ability fully understand a message without missing anything. This tendency can easily be seen on social media, where people jump to respond to something they thought was said, when in reality it wasn’t.
Left unchecked, this tendency can degrade internal communications. This is a particularly acute problem with customer facing team members, who wind up frustrating customers by asking unnecessary questions, misunderstanding problems and ignoring key questions.
The Israeli intelligence services use a small caliber service pistol and train all of their assets to employ a double-tap approach when dispatching targets. Tap-tap. Because one tap is often not going to be enough, two-taps is essential for getting the job done.
The solution to processing emails is similar. I require that all new employees get in the habit of reading everything three times. Tap-tap-tap
- One tap to get the basic gist of the message. This is helpful for quickly triaging your inbox
- A second tap to really dig in and understand the message fully. This means reading it in its entirety
- A third and final tap to make sure you didn’t miss anything. This is a critical step, as people are often surprised at how much they actually miss the first two times
When I mentor people who consistently fail to adequately communicate, based on the fact they don’t understand instructions, directions, questions etc., we apply this system. When the problem invariably re-surfaces, I ask them if they have read the message three times. After they tell me “yes”, I ask them again and this time to tell me the truth. When we finally determine that they haven’t, we re-apply the expectations and repeat until improvements are realized.
I have never worked with anyone who didn’t improve decisively and on a sustained basis, when applying this simple system
My own approach
Although I’ve tested very high in English competency and reading comprehension, I apply this same rule myself. So yes, I generally read everything at least three times, and sometimes more, especially before replying. It may seem like a waste of time, but by eliminating miscommunication, false-starts and other problems, over the long haul there is a significant net saving in time
In addition to reading messages 3x, I require all customer facing and relevant internal correspondence to be processed consistently and systematically, following these rules
All questions (or issues) need to be addressed separately. So if you get an email with 4 questions, you should have 4 distinct answers, not 3, not 2. Seems obvious, but 90% of the time, if a customer asks more than 2 questions, at least one is ignored. I’ve seen that time and time again.
All questions should be answered in-line. This makes it virtually impossible to forget to respond to a particular question embedded in an email, or otherwise ignore some part of a message. It also provides for systematic readability, so you can flow through the correspondence matching each answer directly with the question.