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Boots to Loafers Book Cover - SmallAn excerpt from the book, Boots to Loafers: Finding Your New True North, coming soon:

. . . Seeking ways to sharpen your communication skills is important and must also include a focus on listening and non-verbal communication. I’ve been to meetings where leaders have a lot to say that truly amounts to nothing more than listening to themselves talk. I walk away wondering what the hell just happened and have no idea what the intent of the meeting was or what was actually communicated…the “corporate tap dance” just occurred. While it can be frustrating as you may have just exited a world where confusing messages can get someone hurt or killed, communicating in the corporate world is generally not going to require a medic. That said, remember that your listening skills and non-verbal language (gestures) are very important as well.

Listening is equally as important as speaking. Let’s use an interview situation as an example. The interviewer will note whether you are making eye contact with him, nodding as a sign of understanding, leaning toward him and not interrupting. These are all positive signs that you are listening. Additionally, if you repeat appropriate information back and answer the question using some of the same references the interviewer made, that gives a clear indication that you were listening.

Of course, there can be communication barriers in various situations. For example, accents, noise, fear, prejudice, to name a few. Here’s an example that many in the military face whether you’re a career officer or one who has served four years with eight deployments. You’ve landed an interview and the hiring manager is straight out of college and has a very strong accent. Your first thoughts may lead you down a path that says, “Really, a 22-year old whose communication skills need a little fine-tuning as well is going to decide if I am qualified for the job?” Your body language, attitude, listening skills and responses will make or break this interview. It is extremely important for you to realize that your service to this country, while appreciated and respected by most, may be not be viewed in the same light that you would prefer. The 22-year old hiring manager is going to look at what contributions you can make to the job he needs to fill. So, listen carefully and remember that your body language can also deter your success.

Body language is often all about attitude. Using the interview situation again, just remember to enter every situation where you are one step closer to finding a job with a grateful attitude….smile, shake hands, nod, take notes, and maintain eye contact. All of these gestures are language to the person you are communicating with. A brief course in “Presentation Skills” will cover all of these components; speaking, listening and body language.

At the end of the day, your communication styles can open doors just as easily as it can close them. The military environment, sometimes marked by unpredictable and violent situations, dictates the need for quick, concise and very direct communication with fellow service members. This method of communication can be difficult to find in the private sector. You will find that the private sector’s more relaxed style of communicating to be confusing. It may also come as a surprise at how many people are offended easily. It will add value to your communication efforts to spend time learning about “political correctness” prior to leaving the military. The phrase “political correctness” is defined as: “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.”

Communication is the key to every relationship you will have in your life, including one with co-workers, friends, family, etc. Personally, I continue to learn how to communicate better through each opportunity as I study the situation, understand how the person likes to receive information, and practice before delivering. Driving to an interview or on the way to a big meeting can be your best friend as you practice what you will say, how you will say it and with what tone and emphasis you will deliver it. I don’t recommend a lot of body language while driving. Save that for in front of a mirror at home!

The best solution or remedy for any communication issue you encounter is to talk to someone. If you have concerns about your communication style, reach out to a fellow veteran or a close co-worker who may be able to give advice on how to more effectively communicate in a particular situation. Social occasions with friends and family can also provide a safe opportunity to learn more about how civilians communicate. Trust me, my wife is my sounding board and when I’m preparing for a presentation, interview or just a one-on-one with a co-worker who I need to deliver a message to, I engage my wife to listen and provide feedback. She has experience in this area so I’m generally getting sound advice. Find someone who will do that for you.

I think the best way to illustrate this is one particular situation that happened to me while I out shopping with my wife at the mall. You’ll eventually get to the 2-minute drill in the Integration section, in a situation like you’ll read below is where a 2-minute drill is ideal.

On a nice fall weekend, I was at the local mall with my wife. She had to get a new outfit for work, seasons were changing and the colder weather was rolling in. We were in one store and all of a sudden I literally run into the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the Company. Now, picture this. I’m wearing a t-shirt with a light fleece jacket, shorts, my Keens and my BTL operator hat . The CFO on the other hand was wearing his nicely pressed jeans, deck shoes, a collared shirt, and a nice sweater. Needless to say, we were both a bit surprised. First things first, I introduced my wife to him. Secondly, right off the bat I have communicated to him that I am a very relaxed and easy going person just by him seeing what I wear outside the workplace. What starts running through my mind…what do I say? I never see this man, however, he knows who I am and I have worked with him before in previous jobs. So I start with some pleasantries and he immediately comes back to me with the old “what are you doing now?” At this point, there are some major factors that you must implement; positive and upbeat attitude, attention to detail, brevity (meaning you do not want to take a block of time to tell your story…get to the point), and keep it clean. I made sure I maintained eye contact and paid attention to what was being said and how it was being said. Lastly, I made sure during this very brief encounter that it was a two-way conversation…meaning it just wasn’t me trying to impress the CFO and not allowing him to get a word in edgewise. It was all over before I knew it and off I was with my wife helping her pick out a new outfit for the Fall. Lesson learned: You never know who you’ll run into and when your next opportunity falls right in your lap.

Being former military also provides you the opportunity to speak a foreign language. It’s not French, German, Japanese or any of the more than 6,000 distinct languages on this planet. In fact, military language is unique and generally only understood by those serving in the military. It’s often filled with military jargon, acronyms, service branches, rank structures and much more. This is not to say you have to throw away the language you learned in the military. Rather you have to find the civilian equivalents for many words and phrases in order to communicate effectively outside the gate. Some brief examples of this are words such as:

  • head = bathroom,
  • cafeteria = dining facility or galley,
  • rucksack = backpack,
  • low quarters = shoes,
  • one of my favorites that has no civilian equivalent is gigline…I always check my gigline before I go to work,
  • you don’t take leave, you go on vacation,
  • you don’t wear a cover, you wear a hat,
  • Bravo Zulu or job well done,
  • Bundeswehr gloves or Air Force gloves meaning your hands are in your pockets
  • You go on a business trip not Temporary Duty or TDY
  • The Company needs your contact information it is not a recall roster
  • Where you sleep is your house, not your hooch

And the list is goes on and is extremely long. There are also a variety of “special” military slang terms I won’t even mention (you all know what I’m talking about) that actually have made their way into the private sector. I’m convinced people have heard them in the movies and it is simply cool to them to say to a military person or veteran. In my case, I’ve learned an entirely new set of acronyms and language. There are resources on the internet such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook located online at: www.bls.gov/OCO that will provide civilian equivalent words and phrases to help you with this task. I will tell you though, it is always a breath of fresh air when I get with my fellow veterans and we start talking about things and we all…collectively…go back to our roots as military guys and gals and we start talking in our native tongue…military jargon. You’ll always have it in the back of your mind and there are times you can reach back and grab a phrase or term and use it in your new world and then explain what it means to those on the team. People are more accepting of these new found phrases and/or terms when they actually know what they mean and in what context they can use them.