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Guest Column by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

My father is a retired Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Those of you who grew up in a military environment know it has its own communication nuances. For example, in the military, someone who receives a verbal order is often required to repeat it back immediately to acknowledge they received it. It’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for a simple reason: If a message is poorly relayed and the wrong action taken, especially in wartime situations, the results can be disastrous.

So every time my father told my two brothers and me to do something, we were required to repeat the directions back to him. In this way, he could verify we heard him, understood his request, and would complete it in time.

In the workplace, miscommunications may not have the same devastating results as in the military, but they can certainly damage productivity through rework and mistakes. Mistakes waste time, and time really is money—so it’s crucial to avoid as many miscommunications as possible. Therefore, it’s essential to use the same three-step process my father used to repeat communications:

1. Acknowledge. When you receive a message from someone, whether they’re above or below you in the chain of command, acknowledge its receipt as quickly as possible, even if you can’t supply the answer immediately. Similarly, request acknowledgement from anyone with whom you correspond; if they don’t respond, ping them again in a few days. Send them an email nudge or pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I sent you a message about such-and-such. Did you get it?”

2. Confirm. Repeat back what you plan to do with the request, to make sure you clearly understand what is needed from you. If you don’t understand the directions, keep asking questions until you do. In a related vein, make it clear that people can ask questions if they don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Encourage them to request clarification and be patient when they do. Without this confirmation, someone’s lack of understanding could result in unproductive errors and rework. It’s more productive to go back and forth a few times than to find out later you did something incorrectly due to a miscommunication.

3. Target. If a deadline wasn’t given to you, let the requestor know when you will complete the request. If requesting information, always provide a due date, so the person comprehends the urgency of your request.

Putting these three steps together, you might reply to an email as follows: “Hi Bob, just letting you know I received your message. I will email you a spreadsheet with attendees’ first name, last name, and email addresses by Tuesday.” If Bob needs more information than those three columns or needs the information sooner than Tuesday, this is the perfect opportunity for him to correct any miscommunication.

While the potential for confusion always exists in human interaction, solid, clear communication at all levels will make sure such confusion is minimized. If you follow this simple three-step process for repeating communications, you’ll waste less time, make fewer mistakes, and boost your personal productivity.

© 2012 Laura Stack. For nearly 20 years, Laura Stack has presented onsite seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She has implemented productivity-improvement programs at companies such as Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, Aramark, and Bank of America. She’s the bestselling author of five books, including What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do (Berrett-Koehler, 2012), and has been a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, Xerox, Office Depot, and Day-Timer. Laura is the founder and President of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., and the president of the National Speakers Association (NSA). To book Laura to speak at your next meeting, visit

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17 thoughts on “Repeating Instructions: A Three-Step Process to Avoid Unproductive Communication”

  1. Had a call with a client this morning – we used my version of these steps when discussing her action items. Very effective for productivity!

  2. Karla, it seems that some people aren’t used to “communicating” anymore, just firing off missives at one another. You’re right—slight annoyance is better than the alternative—wasted time and rework. Thanks, Alex. If it feels a bit awkward at first, a few bullet points on a sticky note before leaving a voice mail or attending a meeting can help you focus on the messaging. Debra, it sounds like we are kindred spirits! Verification and understanding are key before completing!

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