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Communicating in a New World

Military to Civilian Transition

As a civilian advisor in the ACP network, I see Q&A on the ACP website dedicated largely to resumes and interviews. There have been thousands of thoughtful and useful responses to these queries from civilian advisors to the veterans transitioning out of their active military service into civilian jobs. I can’t add much on that score.

I’d like to take a different tack. I want to discuss communicating on the job, once you get the job. There’s no field manual on how to communicate with civilians that I know about. Perhaps there should be. What I do know as an executive communication coach is this: as we transition from role to role and business to business and region to region, we need to learn the language, lingo and cultural norms of our new world.

I asked a number of veterans I know for topics areas for this article. Some are theirs – some are mine. The back and forth reminded me of an important point – veterans also bring a ton of valuable techniques from their former world that can operate effectively in the business world. It’s not all about learning something new. It’s also about sharing what you already know.

Let’s talk about a few relevant situations involving transitioning veterans in their new civilian jobs: reading different body language, adapting to new terminology, giving feedback, building relationships, and questioning and listening.

Reading Body Language

One veteran said it’s weird to sit in a civilian business meeting after a military career of perfect posture and rapt attentiveness to see colleagues slumped in their chairs with blank faces. It can give an impression they don’t care about what you’re saying or are dismissive of your message. I get it. We’re all encouraged by our mentors and coaches to ‘read the room’. Some people in business boast that they can size up a room in a minute. A blessing if you can, but it can also be a curse. The downside of that skill is ‘over-reading’ a room. We see blank stares or bad posture and we ascribe motives to what we see. We try to compensate and it takes us way off our game. 20% of the time you may be right – 80% of the time you may be wrong. A ton of successful people in business get by with bad body language based on their positional authority, reputation or celebrity. They may be listening intently to what you’re saying, but they are physically listening differently than you expect them to or differently than you do. Don’t operate out of assumptive behavior. If you want to know what they think, ask them. The shortest distance between two points of view is a question.

If you’re a transitioning veteran, a few on-the-job suggestions:

  • Watch others you admire sit in meetings and listen to presentations – mimic what works/avoid what doesn’t.
  • Practice your ‘at-ease’ posture in meetings – sit back in your chair at times, try to relax your shoulders a bit.
  • Give up trying to be a ‘read the room’ genius – if you want to read people’s non-verbal ‘tells’, go play poker.
  • Whenever you think you’ve lost your audience – ask a question – don’t judge their non-reactions – engage them.

Adapting to New Terminology

Winston Churchill once said of the UK and America – “we are two nations divided by a common language.” Much the same might be said of the two different work worlds occupied by veterans and civilians. We both speak English but with different words, phrases, acronyms, analogies, examples and images. We approach communication from different mindsets in terms of degrees of directness, depth of detail and formality of spoken style. I spoke with a former Army captain I know through ACP about this topic. She said a first question asked of a veteran in a job interview can be: “How long were you in for?” Unintentionally insulting, but it highlights the fact that a veteran might be separated from the business culture for 4-40 years due to their service to the country. That’s a reality that can be viewed as a handicap. As a veteran, she viewed it as a hurdle – something she and all her fellow veterans are used to overcoming.

A few suggestions on how to clear the hurdle of this new civilian business vernacular:

  • For public companies, go to their investor page on the website – listen to earnings calls, speeches, read their presentations.
  • For any company, go to LinkedIn and read their job descriptions, look at their employee profiles – catalogue the terms used.
  • If your company has a website or social media page, listen to any and all webcasts to hear how they talk about the business.
  • Write out 350-word stories about your business – using only civilian language – then verbalize them privately over and over.
  • Don’t try to translate military terms into civilian language – learn the civilian words and use them over and over till natural.
  • Compare your military MOS to civilian job requirements – find the similarities in the actual functioning, not in the describing.
  • Utilize a skill you learned in the military or on a sports team or in a band at school – deliberate repetitive practice. It works.

A thought on cultural norms. These days, from the CEO down, it’s a first name culture. It’s not just dress-down attire on the job. Language and business customs are less formal. I’m told it can be hard to adjust from a military culture where respect for titles and hierarchy is paramount. It’s worth the ‘when in Rome’ effort to adapt. It helps one fit into the verbal rhythm and flow of the workplace.

Giving Feedback

In the civilian world, managers are required to give team members feedback. Colleagues need to ask each other for permission to offer feedback to each other. As a service member, one is probably more accepting of direct, blunt, in your face feedback even in the heat of battle. That’s a cultural norm developed through decades of tradition and years of training. Civilians can also give direct, blunt, in your face feedback but the cultural norms are a bit different. Civilian employees and teammates are not a captive audience. They vote with their feet. They can and do leave bad managers for better ones in other companies or departments.

So, what can you do to give feedback more effectively in your new civilian work world?

  1. It’s usually wise to rebuke in private – business isn’t football where a coach chews out the left tackle in front of the team.
  2. It’s usually smart to praise teams in public. Praising individuals in public can be risky, so go with how they prefer to receive praise - some folks are shy.
  3. It’s about instances or patterns of behavior or performance – it’s not (and never should be) about their value as a person.
  4. Get them talking first – find out where their head is at on the issues – learn how close or far apart you are before you begin.
  5. Don’t back up the dump truck – people may change a few things, not fifteen – focus on less items – and get more results.
  6. Exchange but for and – we usually tend to remember the good stuff that came before an and, not what came before a but.
  7. Exchange what’s right/wrong for what’s working/what can be worked on - it changes the tenor of a feedback conversation.

These are seven simple things that can make a difference. I coach senior executives for year-end performance reviews with their directs. Even when they employ a few of these tactics it makes a big difference in the quality of their interaction.

Building Relationships

Many modern civilian organizations operate on consensus. Hierarchical top-down command cultures still exist but flat organizations tend to be more prevalent. I’m told this change exists in the armed forces as well. In isolated cases, they may even be ahead of the civilian world. The key driver for transitioning veterans is the focus on building and sustaining high quality relationships in your new environment. It’s not touchy-feely New Age B.S. It’s an absolute necessity. Your peers can sabotage your success before you get started. Don’t do relationship repair after months or years of relationship dysfunction – hit it head-on from hello.

Here’s a simple approach. Look at each new colleague in your personal influence sphere. Go have a coffee or a lunch to get acquainted. Then schedule another brief ‘operating style’ conversation. In this conversation, you share information about the following six things:

  1. How you like to receive and process information
  2. How you make decisions – factors, process, criteria
  3. How you manage projects – approach, methodology
  4. What makes you most and least productive at work
  5. What pleases you at work
  6. What pisses you off at work

There are even senior executives in organizations who spend months and years of angst stumbling around colleagues and operating out of assumptive behavior because they never had this type of conversation. This could be a single conversation (when you think the time is right) or a rolling series of conversations over time. Just don’t depend on getting all this by osmosis. By then, it may be too late. Obviously if this conversation is with your new boss, you will adapt to their ‘operating style’ first and over time they’ll adapt to yours as the working relationship matures. Simply knowing what pisses someone off is a big win, in and of itself.

Questioning and Listening

We all tend to hear the same cliché on our first day of work anywhere – “there are no stupid questions.” Maybe not, but there can be stupid times to ask smart questions. That’s where the operating style talk comes in. Then you get a sense of the person you’re asking questions of and the best path to answers gets paved.

The best cliché I ever heard on my first day on a job was “you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Every time I employ that lesson good things happen. I then know what I need to do/learn/modify/correct or change. It’s the elixir of business life with clients, colleagues, team members or peers. Know how to pick your spots, then keep asking. Their responses will guide yours and you won’t go uneducated into the unknown. It’s a process you’re already familiar with in the service – gaining intel before a battle, a project or a war game.

To take best advantage of these skills, try a few simple tactics:

  1. When asking how-to questions at work, go with your curiosity and blurt it out as long as you’re respectful of your colleague’s work flow and time. For career or compensation questions, game plan the conversation and even practice it with a trusted co-worker, close friend or loved one. Don’t wing it. The smartest people prepare those types of talks.
  2. Try to employ question patterns whenever appropriate – closed, open, high gain and follow-up. Example: Do you find these meetings unproductive? Why? How have you adapted? Why’s that? Don’t ask one question and bail – dig a little.
  3. Listen quietly and patiently if possible – even if others are sucking the air out of the room. Try to avoid head-bob reactions, “right/right” auto-responses, talking over others, interrupting their thoughts or reacting emotionally in group settings. Taking things personally in a high stakes business meeting reflects badly on you. It’s like pouring spaghetti sauce over a white shirt.
  4. Occasionally play back what you hear others say for clarity or to build a thought onto their point. It gives your colleagues tangible evidence you listened to them. You may disagree with their point yet being able to articulate it back to them shows respect. Like everything else – pick your spots. Overuse of this technique can diminish its effect.
  5. If you’re running a meeting, try the novel tactic of letting one of them (or all of them) recap the meeting. It may be novel in the business world but I’m told it’s a familiar technique called a ‘brief-back’ that veterans are used to employing. You hear what they heard, yet you hear it the way they heard it – not the way you think they did. Sounds minor, but how many meetings have we sat through where people left confused about what was agreed to or accomplished? This way you will be able to correct misinformation, restate something that needs greater emphasis, or add a key point you completely forgot. You also bring a valuable technique from your former world to your new world.

My main point here – you will gain much more on your new job through questioning and listening than almost any other set of skills.

One last thing about this entire transition. Don’t go it alone. You’re in an overcrowded boat with a lot of other people and, as veterans, the rest of the civilian world is filled with people predisposed to help you on your journey. Grab a mentor or a coach and ask them to help you work through the problem. Talk is cheap. Helping people solve a problem adds real value.

If you have any questions, please contact me on email.
Andy Bergin -

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