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Effectively Communicating

  • Published
  • By Col. Peter P. Santa Ana
  • 6th Mission Support Group commander
Successful outcomes depend heavily on effective communication. History illustrates this perspective in individual and family life, the workplace, desperate situations, and on the strategic world stage. Military leaders understand the importance of effective communication in relation to successful mission accomplishment and strive to provide tools and reports which enhance service members' ability to effectively communicate.

In Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the HQ International Security Assistance Forces commander, codified the Strategic Afghan Assessment Report process and report to communicate war progress to the president, 54 other heads of state, congress, and senior leaders of respective military departments. Air Force leaders instituted the Airman Comprehensive Assessment or ACA and provided a framework for all Airmen to understand themselves in the eyes of their supervisors, set supervisor expectations, and create a situation for improved subordinate/supervisor dialogue in an effort to increase effective communication and achieve mission success.

Individuals can be classified as introverts or extroverts. Neither trait should be viewed as a negative or positive to effective communication. Rather, self-knowledge helps people to understand how to step out of their comfort zones to speak out or to rein themselves in from a dialogue to listen. Both are necessary for effective communication. Successful individuals recognize their trait and adapt accordingly to practice effective communication.

Successful families today, especially large families, employ schedules and technology to exchange texts, emails, snap-chats, Instagrams, chat room discussions with teachers, as well as old fashioned phone conversations to effectively communicate locations, activities, goals, tasks, failings, requirements, and other necessary attributes to succeed in today's dynamic world. Most importantly, parents need to remember to put their smart phones down and actually listen to their children.

In Vietnam, American prisoners of war established a tap code to effectively and secretively communicate in an extremely desperate situation. The tap code provided POWs an ability to bond, build a military hierarchy for organization, and effectively communicate the tortures they experienced in order to persevere. Many of the POWs remained jailed for years enduring the isolations, tortures and interrogations of their North Vietnamese captors. Effectively communicating through the tap code created a life line for survival.

Effectively communicating strategically can be extremely complex and politically challenging. In 2009, McChrystal overcame this challenge by dividing the Afghan war into two communication campaigns: up-and-out; down-and-in. He used the Intermediate Joint Command to fight the operational campaign and communicate his intent and priorities in a "down-and-in" fashion. The IJC structure provided McChrystal the sensors and a commander to communicate a commanders-in-the-field assessment of war progress from an operational perspective. The general combined the IJC operational assessment with intelligence, Afghan National Security Forces progress, and the Afghan government improvement assessments to create a holistic report he used to effectively communicate war progress to the president and 54 other heads of state. The process proved successful to effectively communicate war progress in a transparent forum to keep the coalition resourced and remain focused to give the Afghan people a chance at liberty and end 30 years of war. The strategic assessment process continued after McChrystal's abrupt departure.

Similarly, to improve effective communication up and down to the tactical level, the Air Force implemented mandatory use of the ACA July 1 of this year. The ACA is organized into four sections: Self-assessment; Airman's Critical Role in Support of the Mission; Performance Feedback; Knowing Your Airman. Airmen now have a tool to improve supervisor/subordinate dialogue. Young Airmen can now express to their more experienced supervisors how they see themselves. Supervisors then provide context, set expectations and conditions for their Airmen to achieve unit mission success. The final section provides a series of questions and when applied correctly, it builds supervisors' understanding of their Airmen. By creating effective communication at the tactical level, the Air Force can successfully overcome strategic Airmen issues like sexual assault, suicide, and family domestic challenges by highlighting these issues early and mitigating promptly.

Indeed, effective communication can be the key to success. As the father of a large family, member of the Afghan Assessment Group, lead action officer to develop the ACA, and commander of the 2,200 member Mission Support Group, I believe effective communication has been the key to some of my success.