One of the challenging aspects of the military to civilian transition is found in variances in communication. Language, style, tone and emphasis and how we speak to each other are different in the military from the private sector.
I recently spoke with Sarah Blansett, publisher and vice president at Military.com, on a LinkedIn LIVE session to explore many ways we can more effectively communicate our needs, goals and ideas. She is a former public affairs officer for the Navy, who was stationed at the Pentagon. Today, she leads the largest defense news and information company in the U.S.
Blansett brings a unique lens into how information is shared, what makes for a successful message and when to ask questions instead of offering information.
Highlights Blansett offered about switching from a military narrative to a civilian one include:
** In the military, communication is direct, succinct and effective, removing ambiguity. Information must be clear to brief everyone at the same time on the same critical information and ensure orders are followed accurately. In the civilian sector, on the other hand, there’s a higher tolerance for more context-building and framing up of a message, sometimes making it feel more drawn-out and laborious.
The civilian sector often prides itself in producing inclusive, empathetic work cultures where everyone feels heard and validated. This can conflict with an abrupt, straightforward narrative that emphasizes brevity. As Blansett said: “There’s a shared code that you use in the military. There’s this shorthand that we use. There’s more directness, in part because you have such a strict rank structure.”
Contrasting the strictness of communication in the military with what’s sometimes described as the “fluff” of civilian-speak, and it’s no wonder there are challenges. Finding middle ground is the goal. To avoid being seen as dismissive or harsh, the goal is to communicate what needs to be shared, but to do so in a way that keeps the experience and feelings of others in mind.
** Mentors are extremely valuable as you navigate the communication differences. Blansett points to the influence her mentors have had on her. She notes the importance of having both prior-military and civilian mentors to get the most well-rounded perspective on navigating your career. For example, in the military, “we often fear making mistakes because we think that’s the end or that paints me in a certain light. [Mentors empowered me] to be able to make a mistake and grow from it and move on,” she said.
Knowing that you’ll be asked to communicate differently, enlist the support of people you trust and who’ll be that sounding board, accountability partner and guide to help you understand how your messages are being shared and received.
** When communicating a mistake or bad news, Blansett offered insight into when and how to share that message: “We used to have a saying in the Pentagon … Bad news doesn’t get better with time. I think being able to just say, ‘That’s on me. I did this thing. I made the mistake. I understand what went wrong. This is how it’s not going to happen again’” is important.
When you’re presenting solutions or options for solutions, and you own your accountability, the possibilities that you’ll be offered a chance to redeem yourself grow. By contrast, if you become defensive, try to ignore or hide a mistake or discount the impact of your mistake, you forget the human element. Everyone makes mistakes.
** What about those times when you don’t have the answer or know what to say? Blansett’s advice is, again, to own it: “It’s 100% OK to say, ‘I don’t have the answer to that question right now. I will find out for you.’ I think that’s a perfectly acceptable answer.”
Instead of faking it or hiding, taking ownership for the challenge and then returning with the information not only reflects well on your character and fulfillment of commitments, but it encourages others around you to be honest and genuine when they’re stuck, too.
Advice for navigating the differences in communication between the military and civilian narrative could fill volumes (and has!), and while the challenges might feel huge, the opportunities to find commonality, understanding and empathy are also great.
The author of “Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and “Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition” (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.
A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.
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