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Commentary: Col. Alan Metzler

Col. Alan Metzler

I went on a patrol at Camp Bucca a while back. On this routine day in the squadron, the airwaves and radio waves were filled with the requisite communications that prepare our Airmen for outside-the-wire missions. Truck commanders and drivers were engaged in pre-combat checks and compulsory equipment inspections. The flight chief carefully briefed intelligence and operations at guardmount. Radio calls crackled in a rhythmic cadence that betrayed the frequency of these essential but repetitive communications. And, as in any crew operation, it was readily apparent that effective communication was an essential element to their success.

Still, despite the training, skill and experience of my hand-selected squad leader, on this day he failed. His mistake was elementary yet important, and one I'm sure most of us have made more than once. The mistake of my team leader: poor listening. This is a story of one leader's lesson in listening. In telling it, I urge you to consider how you can improve your listening skills and how you can become a better leader by applying a few simple techniques.

As we moved outside the wire, our talk evolved from tactics and procedures to the more typical banter one hears among Airmen. The chatter was no different than any other day and included the usual repartee about family, sports scores, post-deployments plans and, as I recall, the dinner menu at the DFAC, always an important topic. Still, the talk on this day, in this particular Humvee was different in one significant way. On this patrol, the group commander was riding along. So this day was the day a select group of Airmen had the "opportunity" to interact directly and for several hours with the big boss. Unfortunately that's not always the way our Airmen view these so-called opportunities. Too often, the unspoken reaction to being assigned to take the colonel out is "how did we get stuck with him?!" A barrier to communication certainly, but not an atypical response.

Far too often, when the colonel - or any boss - walks into a room, the conversation stops. Sometimes, people just turn and walk the other way. If they can't leave, they frequently apply the common rule for communicating with one's boss: they don't! Too often as subordinates, we avoid eye contact and hope the boss just goes away. Less risk, less trouble for all concerned. An unfortunate maxim, but one that we must overcome as leaders. And don't think that they don't do it to you, regardless of your rank. Well, on this day, I wasn't going away, and I was riding in the same vehicle with my Airmen for several hours, so we were gonna talk.

The leadership lesson was simple yet stunning. This three person crew - a squad leader, a driver and a gunner - had spent months together at Camp Bucca, driving outside-the-wire daily and putting their lives into each other's hands. I asked each of them how they were dealing with combat stress and I asked them to rank their response on a scale from "one to ten." The driver, a senior airman on her second deployment, said quickly and enthusiastically: "I'm an eleven and a half." Her enthusiasm was infectious. The squad leader was a stereotypical gung-ho tech sergeant. He declared that he was a "ten" and was "good to go." Then it was the gunner's turn. I asked him how he was doing, expecting to hear what I had heard from the driver and the squad leader. The gunner said rather sheepishly, "I'm a one." The reaction from the front right seat was one of shock and surprise. The squad leader couldn't believe the story he heard - a marriage on its last legs, despair over the sense of loss and a severe lack of motivation with his job. Why didn't he tell his squad leader before? One, the squad leader never asked. Two, and more important, the gunner didn't think he'd listen.

Of all the communication skills we learn in our Air Force education and training - writing, briefing, speaking, directing, controlling, instructing - there are few lessons on listening. And of all those vital communication skills, I submit that none is more important than listening. Here are a few guidelines you should consider to become a better listener, and in turn, a better leader.

1) Seek out listening opportunities. Your Airmen want you to know their dreams, goals, concerns, needs and sometimes, their fears. You must work to overcome the barriers that prevent communication. When your Airmen apply the "don't talk to the boss" rule, don't let them. Sometimes, you need to get aggressive and ask them directly what they think. Be prepared for the answers and don't shrink from the honest and direct feedback. If sought out with genuine concern, you will get genuine answers.

2) Be prepared to listen. Clear your mind about your issues and focus on theirs. When you aren't listening, your Airmen know. The more you have on your mind, the less you will be able to focus on them, so you must work at preparing to listen.

3) Listen to understand, not to respond. Too often, leaders want to get their messages out and spend their time waiting to talk instead of actively listening to what their people are saying. You will be more effective if you spend more time in receive mode vice transmit mode. Also, the more senior you become, the more time you should spend seeking out information and listening to what your people tell you. If they aren't talking to you that might be a signal that you need to improve your listening.

4) Listen with your eyes. Nothing will communicate indifference more clearly to an Airman than lack of attention, distraction or darting eyes. Look them in the eye, listen to what they are saying and look for the nonverbal clues that communicate more in gestures than most words ever could. Sometimes your best and/or most important "listening" will be done when no words are spoken by your troops.

5) Listen using their frame of reference, not yours. Understand that your Airmen will usually choose different words, phrases and, sometimes, even methods to communicate their concerns than you would. If you listen for the message that you would send, you'll miss a lot of communication. This is especially important in cases of combat stress or when our Airmen are seeking out help or support but may not do it in the manner that you would expect. If you know your people well - as the squad leader should have - then looking for what is different about your people is as important as listening to what they say.

6) Write down their concerns and requests. Later, give them feedback when you've acted on their issues. They will appreciate it. Plus, your Airmen will tell other Airmen when you do, creating a better communications environment in your unit or office.

7) Here's the most important tip about listening - and this one finally involves your message. When it is time to give your Airmen feedback, be direct and honest. There is nothing they want more than honesty and frankness. No doubletalk. No different stories to different groups. No hedging. They know when you are BS-ing them and they know when you are being straight. Honest, direct feedback will earn their respect and support, especially if you respect them enough to give them the straight scoop.

What's the payoff for all this listening? It's simple: you will become a better leader. Your Airmen will listen to you more when you demonstrate concern for them. And, in the end, each of you will be better equipped to get your mission done. Finally, if you didn't get this far in the article, you weren't listening. Tell your friends and colleagues when they aren't listening well enough, and we'll all be better for it. Regardless of the roles we play in our units - gunner, squad leader or the big boss - we can all do a little better at listening.

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