Fort Jackson Commanding General Brig. Gen. Milford H. “Beags” Beagle Jr. presents a command coin and gives words of advice to high-performing cadets during a 2019 recognition ceremony at the Army ROTC Leader Professional Development symposium. Beagle wrote ‘the need for us to communicate effectively is at an all-time high.’
By Brig. Gen. Milford H. "Beags" Beagle Jr.,
Fort Jackson Commanding General
Based on all of the things that have occurred over the past six months and in some cases, many months before (civil and social unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic, spikes in suicidal ideations / attempts and improving our approaches to diversity and inclusion) the need for us to communicate effectively is at an all-time high.
Many of the subjects that need to be discussed are self-titled as “sensitive subjects,” “emotionally charged,” “difficult” or other, but regardless of the subject matter or topic, many of the conversations we need to have as an Army, as an installation and individuals are crucial.
Dialogue or conversations seem relatively easy on the surface. We talk all of the time to each other; virtually and physically, but we sometimes fail to realize the type of conversations that we are having or the conversations that we need to have.
As an example, many of us may have been a part of conversations where a participant or both participants simply wait to respond or provide counter-points without listening to each other. Or, the innocent conversation that starts as a question, comment or statement ends with one of the two parties walking away angry, hurt or confused. So the question becomes, how do we have better conversations and how do we successfully navigate through the conversations we are having?
First, we can learn a thing or two about the type of conversation that we are having. In a general sense, we prefer to use terms such as “uncomfortable” conversations to generally label conversations that we feel are difficult; delivering bad news, negative counseling, poor evaluation reviews, etc. In turn, we use “casual” conversations to signify those that we think or feel are of little significance and will have minimal impact on a group or individual.
In both cases, we should relook a fundamental assumption for both. We assume that the “casual conversation” will start well and end well.
Similarly, we assume that the “uncomfortable conversation” will both start poorly and end poorly if we are not careful. Author Kerry Patterson in his book “Crucial Conversations” provides tremendous insight with regard to “talking when stakes are high.” So in essence, many of our conversations are crucial and we simply may not view them as such.
Based on the subjects that our Army needs us to talk about with our Soldiers, Civilians and Families (diversity, inclusion, sexual harassment / assault, suicide, etc.), high stakes are involved. Our institution develops individuals to perform and operate as part of a team. The challenge that comes with this is coalescing an individuals inherited values, biases, world views, etc. with those of the Army. This in no way means “brain washing” but rather finding alignment of thought and understanding. Much of this alignment can be achieved through experience, courses, and initiatives but embedded in all this is the need to have crucial conversations.
As an example of this, we only need to reflect on the differences of those to our left and right (race, religion, country of origin, gender, etc.). There is nothing out of alignment regarding any of these differences and our Army values. However, understanding the differences or realizing that we join this team with differences is a key focus of many of our EO, SHARP and other programs. It is also a reason that we have an endless need to have conversations about differences.
So what is a crucial conversation? As described by author Kerry Patterson, a crucial conversation has three key components: 1) high stakes 2) strong emotions and 3) opposing opinions. So whether you are discussing a performance counseling or communicating the importance of diversity and inclusion, chances are, all three components are in existence in the conversation you are having or are about to have.
Second, so now that you know what a crucial conversation is and how to recognize one, what do you do? How do you have the conversation without the proverbial wheels falling off? In order to paraphrase many of the author’s key points and put it in my own words for simplicity sake, Patterson offers some key insights:
For starters, every conversation is not a win lose proposition. Based on rank, title or position, there is sometimes a thought that the initiator of the conversation must be the winner and the recipient the loser. Instead of focusing on wins and losses, the central focus of a conversation needs to be centered on the relationship with the individual or group and achieving a successful outcome.
Next, “learn to look”. Look for what you may ask? Look for signs that a conversation is going south. Silence, facial expression, lack of interest, etc. Many times we recognize these signs and continue to press on to the objective (get through the conversation and hopefully chalk it up as a win). When you realize these signs or other, pause to confirm or deny what you are seeing. “Did I say something wrong or upsetting?” “Am I on the right track with what I am saying?” Do something to let the person or audience know that you recognize signs (positive or negative). You may have just stepped on the pressure plate of emotion, opinion or something viewed as high stakes. Take your time, at that moment to retrace your steps or pursue a different approach for the discussion. Either way, demonstrate that you listen with more than your ears.
Then, strive to make conversations “safe.” So what does that mean? In many conversations that we need to have or must have (unless you have some personal hidden agenda), they should be for mutual gain. Therefore, with an individual or audience, you want to demonstrate mutual respect to others point of view and work towards achieving a mutual interest.
As a final point, prepare to have crucial conversations. As you may have recognized at this point, very few conversations that you intend to have or have had in the past were “casual” or “uncomfortable;” they were crucial. As humans, our gift to communicate is truly an amazing gift. So whether you communicate verbally, non-verbally or digitally from behind a keypad take the time to prepare yourself for the conversation that you are about to have or the one that you may provoke but didn’t anticipate. Similar to the social media edict of “think, type then post,” when having conversations of any kind with any individual or audience, “think, look and then speak.”
We have a lot to discuss at Fort Jackson on a daily basis and our current conditions have given us even more things to talk about. Key is to avoid spreading fear, speaking or communicating solely based on opinion or being disrespectful to those on the receiving end of our communication. Many of our senior and junior leaders and civilians have the experience or experiences to have the conversations, but not everyone has the skill to guide or recognize crucial conversations. In order to achieve impactful outcomes, we must be mindful and take the time to learn how to effectively navigate our conversations. The more we know about communicating, the better we will be at communicating. One Team, One Fight, One Family!