How to Decode Civilian Language for a Successful Transition

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Undoubtedly, as your separation or retirement date nears, military peers have told you, "Civilians speak a different language!"

In reality, we may all be speaking English, but it can feel like we're speaking different languages, dialects or narratives. Many veterans tell me they feel that they need to decode the way civilians speak in order to successfully transition from a military to civilian career.

In transitioning out of the military, it may feel as if civilians are constantly shifting intent, meaning, subtext and language as they communicate with one another and with you.

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Examples Where Decoding Is Required

In the civilian sector, it's common to encounter code-switching of narrative and messaging, which can be unsettling to someone not used to speaking this way. By contrast, military-speak is direct, specific and candid in order to communicate information in the most forthright way possible.

Some examples where you might need to decode civilian language are:

  1. Offering Feedback. When providing input or feedback to a colleague or employee, civilians are often trained to be sensitive to the other person's feelings, to consider how the information could be received, and therefore to couch their comments with gentleness, yet provide input that is candid and direct. Sometimes, this means they vacillate in their communication styles, messages get muddled in pleasantries, and the impact of the feedback gets lost.

Contrast this with the directness of feedback and input veterans are accustomed to during their military duty, and there's a disconnect. Many of the veterans I coach tell me they missed the message when provided with feedback from a civilian employer or mentor. They heard what they thought was intent and ran with that.

2. Networking. The practice of building and sustaining a viable network of professional contacts is stressful enough without considering that civilians sometimes say one thing but mean something very different. You are likely taught that networking is critical to your transition and career growth -- it is! The more people you know, and who know you, the better your ability to influence your career trajectory.

Yet, often in the course of networking, civilians fall into the trap of overpromising and under-delivering, saying they'll review your resume and not doing it. Or promising to introduce you to a key contact, and neglecting you. Or representing their network as more influential than it actually is. Civilians do this for many reasons, including having good intentions (that can't be upheld), forgetting what they promised (happens to everyone), and not wanting to hurt or disappoint you (many people are people-pleasers)

What Can You Do?

You can't convince every civilian you encounter to speak to you with the same clarity and directness you received in the military. That said, you can learn to identify the shifts in intent and language that indicate the message is shifting and/or that your response to that message needs to shift.

Recognize that the communication styles are different and accept that the way in which civilians communicate is not "wrong," it's just dissimilar to what you're used to. Over time, you can adjust your responses and expectations to your new work culture, and communication will become more natural.

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