The best leaders and project managers I have seen are those that can differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information quickly, so time is not wasted unnecessarily. It is those individuals, whom through their line of questioning, determine from another person – ‘what is the thing you want?’.

Do not confuse what I am about to say as an excuse for poor stakeholder engagement, or buy-in. This article is geared towards organisations and teams which operate in high tempo environments, experience stressful positions and require streamlined communication in order to survive.

My previous role within the military was one characterised by high and low tempo periods. Due to the nature of high tempo periods, time becomes short to make accurate and well-reasoned decisions often concerning the allocation of resources, and judgements about personnel safety. But what struck me as odd was a phenomenon I can only describe as ‘rambling’. As people got stressed, they felt the need to justify their question prior to asking it. But why would you be saying more when there is significantly less time? – it doesn’t make sense. It only creates more stress. It took me a long time to realise what was happening, but after having reasonable time to deliberate on the phenomenon I think I have figured it out!

As people become stressed they internally perceive the stakes to be higher. In turn, people tend to transition into a self-protection mode (either physically or professionally) – this is seen particularly in the military where individuals are assessed routinely on their technical skills and their ability to operate complex/complicated systems under trying circumstances. As a result, people rearrange the way they ask their questions in such a way that they begin with the justification before asking the question. You might have experienced this before when someone opens with a massive preamble about a problem and all they really wanted was to ask for something simple like a signature for something you already knew about. This is the same issue on a graduating scale.

On one such occasion I was helping run operations in a large scale military exercise. A person (whom I have the highest respect for, particularly their technical ability and their integrity) was ten minutes into a ramble and unbeknownst to them – time from my perspective was very short! I had to ask directly:

“What is the thing that you want?”

They looked at me somewhat shocked as to the bluntness of the question, but I continued,

“If you had to describe in 50 words or less how I can help you best, what would you say? As I have to leave for a meeting.”

Their reply – priceless.

“Can I borrow your computer for a couple of minutes.”

My reply – and a quick pat on the back later.

“No worries”.

Our relationship since that time has never been better. There was no massive social blunder, no awkwardness, just professional courtesy. Since that time, it dawned on me – how many hours of other people’s busy lives I have needlessly wasted by asking questions in the wrong way.

In certain circles within Defence, a technique called Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is utilised. It directly addresses this problem – it formally requires the individual to rearrange their correspondence in such a way that the question is the first line read on the document, brief or presentation.

BLUF Example:

I seek approval to move item X to area Y?


  1. The item needs to be serviced
  2. Replacement items are inbound
  3. The item will no longer work with system Z which will be introduced in June.
  4. Etc.

The result is the decision maker is queued towards the problem early, and can actively consider the justifications without getting lost in the data.

Please note, when I refer to direct questioning, I am not implying one has to be rude, or unapproachable – quite the opposite. I am suggesting that a strong team with well rehearsed lines of communication should be able to circumvent the need to talk unnecessarily in times of extremis, or high stress. Team members should be confident in asking questions directly, and leaders should be comfortable in their team members’ abilities. Those teams that can achieve this level of operational ability are routinely the same that outperform their competitors.

Now I am not suggesting that Nirvana can be reached in terms of perfect communication, but I would suggest that there are certain things we can do at our level to improve our communication when it counts the most:

  1. Think before you communicate – What is it you want? Be prepared to explain why if they ask. Rehearse your question and answer.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask the direct question – ‘What is the thing you need from me?’ or ‘Please describe exactly what you see me doing to help you?’
  3. Train your personnel – Encourage people to be confident enough to ask direct questioning.
  4. As a leader, be approachable and explain your intent – If you have to ask someone to be direct with their question also explain that you are not being rude and you appreciate direct questioning as it helps you problem solve more efficiently.
  5. Reinforce the correct behavior.

In my own experience, I have seen this work very effectively. Not just within Defence but across a multitude of different agencies. By cutting out the white noise I think I have significantly improved the way in which I communicate. My team members have also adopted the same line of questioning, to a point where it has become habitual. Give it a try!

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

David Neal Is a leader, strategist, founder, project and change manager, as well as a practical consultant for clients such as the ADA NSW, University of Sydney, Australian Defence Force, Prescare, RSL Queensland, MedReleaf, and KPMG. ​He is one of the authors of ‘Growing Good Leaders’ which focuses on developing high performing teams and running projects. He travels throughout Australia and overseas helping others to simplify the complex. His time serving in the military has provided him with vast experience in leadership, complex problem solving, project and risk management. He has chosen mateship, family and helping good people as his path.

30 replies
    Jean Dickerson says:

    This style of communication has come naturally to me my whole life. While many have appreciated the way I get to the point quickly, I have found at times that some get rather offended. As a result, I try to read the person’s response to see if I need to make adjustments in my approach. But most people recognize my authenticity and thank me for “making sense.” Thank you for the good reminders on which occasions in particular require us to skip beating around the bush.

    Ranganatham says:

    I would love to comment on this.
    This is very much required.
    But before that I like to use it within my situation and then come back with my experience of how useful it was to improve our lines of communication.
    Hope this is fine with you.

    Anthony Leon says:

    This is a great explicative article of “Lost In Translation”. It’s what happens when people struggle to get to the point and “beat about the bush”. We end up not saying what is directly needed or expected to get done. From both sides, manager to employee relations, we can misconstrue directives and needs; if we are unable to say what is needed “point blank”. The article examines the power of direct and precise dialogue between manager and employee, how it’s beneficial for both, and how you can easily obtain the results desired. Big plus from an employee perspective is that you lose the confusion of what your employer is requesting from you. So take the extra step of confidence and follow the writer’s advice and ask “What is the thing you want?”

    Jeff says:

    Great article and spot on. I’ve experienced similar situations and nearly lost my bearing with impatience as teammates rambled on for a simple request. Even senior commanders struggle with this. Training your team members to get to the point is key to maintaining or even increasing optempo. We used lead-in BLUF statements in our communications with higher headquarters and with subordinate commands saving us countless precious minutes when optempo was high. This same approach is applicable to teamwork in the corporate world and is something I have trained my teams to use just recently.

    Robert McGowan says:

    I really enjoyed this article David. The part that stood out most was around direct questioning and how it can be perceived as being rude or unapproachable if done incorrectly. Too often when people change to a more direct approach they forget the importance of explaining that they are going to be implementing a new way of communicating that should benefit all. If they take this step then the team will understand the why behind the change and there does not need to be worry around whether people may be offended or feel unimportant.
    I had a time where I had to explain to one of the people on my team that sometimes he was too blunt with his colleagues. This left his teammates feeling like he didn’t care about them as people and only cared about performance. Unfortunately, I did a poor job explaining to him that he not only needed to take a different approach with them, but that he needed to explain the why behind his current form of communicating and also why he would be altering it. He was now being perceived as someone who “sugar coated” or would “beat around the bush”. That is too big of a swing obviously and also not effective. Part of the reason he was being perceived this way is that he made no mention of the change and took no accountability for his previous behavior. He also misunderstood that the communication did not need to necessarily soften, but he needed to explain his goal with the previous approach. We were able to backtrack and fix it which helped him and his team tremendously. It was also a great learning opportunity for me when I approached coaching around this topic moving forward.

    Asha Menon says:

    Thank you for sharing this pertinent article David.

    Personally, I prefer to cut the noise, ask effective questions and get to the core of the matter. However, as you very rightly said, team members need to be encouraged to do so as this is not the preferred choice by most – based on issues to do with culture, rank, confidence, fear etc. Having to justify first seems to be a conditioned response (probably going back to our childhood days where most often our questions were either frowned upon or shot down).

    I love the BLUF technique which you have shared about. Great tool to equip our teams with as we empower them to speak up.

    Audrey MUZY says:

    A really relevant and useful article, David!
    To have an efficient communication, you must respect some rules.
    – First, communicate with CONFIDENCE (the key word to a great team work). Dare ask questions (there’s nothing worse than unanswered questions!) and trust the team.
    – Second, communicate while giving CLEAR INSTRUCTIONS. Absolutely crucial. Who has never experienced feeling lost with an explanation, but once explained differently the answer became obvious!
    Clear instructions rhyme with efficiency. If you want to be heard, you need to be efficient so you need to find the right words (at the right time).
    Being direct doesn’t mean being rude, but efficient and clear.
    – To conclude, I would add (because I deeply believe in it) that AUTHENTICITY is the right mean of communication!

    Gustavo says:

    Yes David. This is a wonderful advice. It’s not easy to reach this good working relationship when you have short deadlines and is working with a new team. And it’s very challenging too to achieve this kind of relationship in a toxic environment. When you are capable of having this level of trust and cumplicity with your team it’s much better to go straight to the point avoiding the white noise and unnecessary stress.

    Andrew B says:

    David Neal suggested this article to me, so of course I read it because I trust him. Why? He gives clear, sound and succinct advice to the point you wonder how the heck you missed it before.

    The guidance in this article is fantastic, no question. Knowing your audience, when to adapt the content, scale and medium of communication is incredibly important. Likewise, I would also remind that there are times when you need to be more “fluffy” with the communication especially when dealing with people who maybe aren’t as close to a given scenario / issue thus requiring backstory before request. Never assume that people understand just because you do. That is normally a big mistake. Know your audience.

    Another cracking article from David and The Eighth Mile Consulting team!!

    Daryl Smith says:

    I am an advocate of this type of communication which was very normal in my time in defence. I have found though, that in the public and private and sector it is not always well received and I have had to make adjustments to the way in which I communicate. The strategy is to let your team know up front that we can all be fair and frank and lets not get caught up in the weeds when needing to either make or request a decision to be made. I am the first to admit that I am inpatient in dealing with “White noise” and prefer to get straight to the point but I also acknowledge that many others are not comfortable with this approach. The message here is try and tailor your comms to the audience unless they are acutely aware of the style in which you operate.

    Mohammed Rahem says:

    A great piece by Mr David Neal and the team over at The Eighth Mile Consulting.

    Even though the article is aimed at a specific audience, I genuinely believe that there is a lot that can be learned by all those who hold leadership positions, or are aspiring to become leaders.

    I love the fact that you’ve taken the time to acknowledge the external factors that can influence an individual when trying to communicate something (stress, pressure etc.). The BLUF technique is something that i think people should definitely look to understand and then try to implement as I believe it could serve them well in their development. That being said, there are a lot of military principles and disciplines that i think the corporate world could adopt in order to become stronger such as discipline, teamwork, communication, selflessness, decisiveness, courage, integrity…i could go on for ages but i think you get the idea.

    Another key takeaway for me is the fact that it’s not always necessarily the message that is being communicated, rather the manner in which it is being delivered or shared. This holds massive bearing and makes a huge difference.

    This was fantastic article and a great read David, thanks for sharing and for continuing to push the messages of growth, development, self improvement and evolution of people and teams. Keep it up.

    To be a strong leader you need to be able to be decisive, clear and concise in how you communicate with your teams or the people around you. This is by no means an easy task but a skill that can be developed and honed with effort and practice. You are the captain of your ship so the success and survival of your crew depends on you navigating them through unexpected waters.

    Susan Lain says:

    I feel the thing that can make this difficult is a nontrusting team. When you have to feel the room out first, it can be difficult to be so direct in communication. We have a wildcard on our team which causes two problems, first it makes the rest of the team unsure of themselves, and second now that they are already unsure they feel justifications are the only way someone will listen or understand what they are trying to say.

    Having a team that trusts one another goes a long way in being able to be direct!

    Cynthia Hemingway says:

    Great little article! Direct communication styles vary for sure, and sometimes getting to the root of the issue first is considered threatening.

    Posing the issue with a ‘to the point’ question up front has always worked for me as a deliverer of the issue and a receiver. In leadership, we often have to adjust our styles for the person we are working with though. So sometimes, a little sugar or honey goes a long way with a person who does not like to be the receiver of direct communication. I find that some people need the story to understand the question.

    I adjust as necessary, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much, but I do keep trying.

    Kevin Holman says:

    Another great article David and one which I can relate to.
    From a personal perspective, I am known for being blunt and direct at times, but I believe it opens the opportunity to efficient action. Yes, time is a valuable commodity which should not be squandered but respect is also important in business relationships. If the discussion requires action then define, allocate and action it. It is also important, when time permits, to touch base with the person(s) and open the longer discussion to perhaps offer an explanation as to why you were direct/blunt. I think if this is done regularly others you work with will instinctively expect a ‘to the point’ approach but know it’s not in any way being rude or disrespectful, just decisive. My humble opinion.

    Pat Conditt says:

    BLUF. Excellent.

    What you are describing is the ideal state that I have been able to achieve with my inter circle. It came from working closely together during the non-urgent times with open communication, fully working to understand intent and nuances. When we walk into a tense situation, muscle memory takes over, built on a foundation of trust and practice, and BLUF rules the day.

    Thank you for explaining this better than I could have ever done.

    • David Neal says:

      Thanks for your thoughts and feedback on this Pat. Glad it resonated with you. It sounds like you have already adopted the principle to full effect.

      Kudos to you and the team

    Amy Bray says:

    Cutting through the white noise: use open-ended questions.
    I’ve had professional and personal situations where this one element was so significant!
    This sounds nasty, but it forces people to be honest if they are trying to get away with something. Rephrase your close-ended question with an open-ended one–it’s revealing.
    To your point about getting to the heart of the matter: “WHAT is it that you want?” “Your laptop.”
    Thanks for talking on this topic-its so relevant, however, I’ve yet to see anyone speak on it! Cheers!


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