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?

Justification:

  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.

6 replies
  1. redsevenranch@gmail.com'
    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.

    Reply
  2. gvr@pmibangalorechapter.org'
    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.

    Reply
  3. la03192002@yahoo.com'
    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?”

    Reply
  4. jeich05@gmail.com'
    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.

    Reply
  5. robertmcgowan5@gmail.com'
    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.

    Reply

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