Active Reading: The Active Listening of Email (Part 1 of 2)

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group.

How do you feel when someone’s email reply answers only one of the multiple questions you’ve asked? Or asks a question about something you have already addressed? Or when your message with critical information is never even acknowledged?

Many of us fail to read email closely, and, in the end, it wastes everyone’s time. With so much daily business passing through these exchanges, the cost of waste is high.

Part of the responsibility certainly falls on the writer. All emails should be clear and concise, including only the essential details. Questions and actions that require attention should stand out.

However, there is a pervasive haste to email that causes this great waste. People who are reading on-the-go capture what appears on their tiny screen and fail to scroll for more. People who are distracted stop at the first question and fire off a response. People with overflowing inboxes process volume in a hurry and shortcut their communication. We are all guilty of it to some degree.

At The Latimer Group, we teach and promote active listening as a critical element of effective communication. Active listening is an important way to learn about our audience and to make them feel heard, respected, and empowered. Through our active listening, we can move a conversation in a collaborative and cooperative direction, even when the topic and situation are complex and controversial. Active reading, where we spend the requisite time to take in an entire message and respond thoughtfully, provides the exact same benefits.

Let’s consider the ways in which each of us can improve our active reading skillset.

When we read an email, our first step should be to scan its entirety to see the scope of the full message. If necessary, scroll all the way through and see the length, the structure, and the connection to a thread. Then go back to the top and start reading carefully.

As we read, our brains will create a voice and we will hear each line in our head. Let’s be generous, yet discerning, with the tone of that voice. Let’s not add unnecessary snark or ire to the tone, but let’s make sure we are sensing the mood that lies behind the message because that can be highly informative to our response. When we go beyond the text and consider the subtext, we can see the full picture.

Next, let’s ask ourselves a series of questions that takes us from reading to responding:

  • What is this person sharing and why are they sharing it?
  • What is the mood and urgency of this message?
  • What cares, concerns, or priorities am I hearing?
  • What questions and actions am I seeing?
  • What is my best response?

This can be done very quickly with short emails that are part of back-and-forth exchanges, and it can be drawn out for the more sensitive, complex emails we receive.

What is critical for success here is that we create the space for this process to occur and have the focus required to do it well. This means that our next step in refining our active reading skillset is to improve our overall email management. Stay tuned for Part 2.

We believe that great communication skills change the world. We transform people and organizations of all sizes with simple, repeatable techniques, through an integrated platform of corporate training, coaching, and asynchronous learning.

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Corporation’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.