Lessons in Strategic Communications from an Admiral

You may have missed it. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a clinic in communications, public relations and sales. It was in late August–perhaps that’s why you didn’t hear of it.

Of course, it was also cleverly disguised as a critique of the US government’s communications policy with respect to the Muslim world. But no matter, it was a clinic nonetheless. Here is Adm. Mike Mullen:

"To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate…

…most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all," he wrote. "They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."

What constitutes good communication? According to Adm. Mullen:

"…having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves. We shouldn’t care if people don’t like us. That isn’t the goal. The goal is credibility. And we earn that over time.

[our messages] lack credibility, because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises."

Clearly Mullen is confusing his skillset with that of a communications expert. What else does he think good communication requires?

"It’s not about telling our story," he stated. "We must also be better listeners."

You may think Mullen is out of his league. Then again, if you are reading this blog, you probably recognize his wisdom. But let’s pile on some more anyway.

Communication is a Two Way Street

The heart of influence lies not in our fancy powerpoints or elegantly crafted talking points. Ironically, paradoxically, it lies in listening before we talk.

Thomas Friedman articulated this well in his commencement address at Williams College a few years ago:

The most important part of listening is that is is a sign of respect. It’s not just what you hear by listening that is important. It is what you say by listening that is important…

Never underestimate how much people just want to feel that they have been heard, and once you have given them that chance they will hear you.

The Psychology of Communication

Communication is a dance, not a diktat. The establishment of trust requires communication, in an ascending exchange of reciprocal acts of listening.

Being right is an overrated virtue. In fact, being right too soon has the effect of pissing people off. There is a time for every season, including stating opinions. And that time is after you have listened.

Not all truisms are true, but this one is:

–People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.

That simple little sentence, phrased in an intentionally corny manner so as to increase the odds of remembering it, is very sound psychology.

Communications, influence and trust have a few very simple rules: one is, first you listen.

  • Shrinks know this.
  • Good salespeople know this.
  • Good diplomats know this.

Apparently, so do Admirals.

Thanks for the clinic, Admiral.