Can We Talk?

In 1977, I was assigned as the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the Automated Data Processing Section at the Aviation Supply Department in Okinawa, Japan. Since computers were fairly new and most of the Marines did not even know what the main frame computer looked like, we answered directly to the Supply Officer, Major Jones (not his real name). One day, the Major brought a brand new officer into the computer complex and introduced him as our new Officer in Charge.

Capt Smith (again, not his real name) had just finished a tour of duty as an instruction in Athens, Georgia at the Navy Supply School where Marine Aviation Supply Officer’s received their training. He was a highly intelligent officer, professional in every way, and a by the book kind of person. I honestly believe the Major has assigned him to our section to try and loosen up his stiff manner. But there was no doubt, we were fortunate to have an officer of this caliber as our new boss.

I showed the Captain around and helped get him settled at his new desk in between operating the computer. By late afternoon he was at work and I was looking over everything to brief my night crew operator on what I expected to be run, in what order, and what information I wanted to be passed on to the mid-crew operator. I looked at my watch and said, “Oh my, it’s four thirty already.”

With that announcement, I walked into the tape van (our computer complex consisted of a central office and three 8-foot by 8-foot by 20-foot vans connected together — the computer van, the tape van, and the keypunch van — all which could be deployed and operated in a wartime theater.) I opened one of the vents to the air conditioning system and pulled out a can of beer. I walked to the door of our complex and popped the top. The Captain’s eyes were wide and his face showed his absolute disbelief in what he had just seen.

With anger in his voice, the Captain spoke. “Sergeant, that is not a can of beer you just opened, is it? Are you telling me you have beer hidden in the tape van? Let me tell you what is going to happen. You are going to retrieve all the beer and I am going to watch you pour it all out. Then we are going to have you evaluated for your drinking problem.”

“Sir, if you will let me explain…”

“There is no explanation, Sergeant,” the Captain interrupted. “You have a problem and I am going to help you overcome it. I was told by other officers that you are really an asset to this organization but are known to be a little different. But, this…”

This time I interrupted him, “Captain, you don’t understand. If you will just wait…”

“I will not wait. Get the beer and let’s go dump it out!” he barked.

Communicating is critical if people are ever going to be able to work together and solve difficult problems. Our folks in Washington have forgotten how important communications skills are to working together for the good of the people who elected them. Civility at airports and on airplanes just does not seem to exist. The sitting down with someone whose views are different than our own views has degraded to shouting matches and name calling. Where have we gone wrong? We have forgotten that communication is an art. So here is some important advice if you want to increase your ability to communicate with your team, your bosses, your family…anyone.

  • Effective communicating begins with listening. In the above story, the Captain kept interrupting me so that I could never explain why I was popping the top on a beer. If he would have taken the time to let me explain, he would not have been surprised in the end (I will share the rest of the story in a minute).
  • Reflective listening will ensure you have understood the points made by the other person. After you have listened to what the other person has said, take the time to repeat back to them the main points that they made during their conversation. In this manner, you will now have a clear understanding of the problem, complaint, suggestion, or purpose for the discussion. In return, the person to whom you are talking will know that you have given them the courtesy of really hearing what they had to say. It may also help you to see that their points are valid when you restate them.
  • Now, using the restated points, lay out your views in a clear concise manner. Do not speak down to the person or use a condescending tone. Do not raise your voice or resort to insults. If they try to interrupt, nicely remind them that you allowed them the courtesy of hearing their entire discourse without interrupting and you would like the same consideration. When you are done, ask them to summarize your comments back to you so that you can ensure your message was communicated in a clear manner and that they were listening.
  • Continue the conversation in this manner with the idea that through this exchange of ideas, you will be able to come up with a solution that may be all in your favor, all in the favor of the other person, or a compromise that will meet the needs of both people. Remember, this attitude that ‘together, we can come to a solution’ is important so that all those involved in the conversation have the same goal in mind from the very beginning. You can’t get to your destination if you do not know where you are going.
  • Finally, in some cases dealing with politics, religion, and other personal beliefs, you may never see eye to eye with the other person. This is not a bad thing if you were able to discuss your views together without being mean spirited and allowed each person to share their views. So, the final result in conversations of this nature may be that you agree to disagree. And that is a valid solution and you have made it to your destination without damaging your professional or personal relationship. And how knows, you may have even learned from the other person just by allowing them to state their views.

So, let’s pick up the story where I left off.

“I will not wait. Get the beer and let’s go dump it out!” the Captain barked.

“But, Sir…”

Just at that point, Major Jones walked into the computer complex, took the beer from my hand, and asked me to provide him a brief on where we were at and where we were heading with regard to the computer operations. I motioned for the Captain to draw near and I briefed both of them on our operations. By the time I was done, the Major had finished his beer, handed me the empty can and told me he would see me the next day at the same time. “Good job, Len. By the way, how are we on beer?”

“We could use another case, Sir. The Lieutenant from Marine Corps Property has requested a special listing.”

“Then he will be bringing you a case of beer tomorrow morning.” And with that, the Major left.

The Captain stood there stunned. Finally, he asked, “How often does that happen, Sergeant?”

I smiled, “Monday through Friday at this time and on Saturday, at noon when we shut down for the weekend.”

Shocked at my reply, the Captain asked, “And why did you not tell me about this?”

I smiled even more, “I tried, Sir, but you just kept interrupting.”

Exceptional leaders know the importance of open and honest communications. If we all pledge to work on this vital skill, who knows what we will be able to accomplish to begin the process of healing this nation.

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