Soft Skills You Learn In The MilitaryUpdated: November 2, 2019
Soft Skills are skills or qualities that can be classified as personality traits or habits and include communication skills, personal relations, even integrity.
There are many soft skills you learn or enhance while serving. Starting in Basic Training, through technical school, on-the-job training, or AIT, and into the service member’s chosen career field, soft skills are required but can be hard to quantify…at first.
Examples Of Important Soft Skills
Any training environment will either require or help you learn the use of soft skills. It’s important to recognize that skills require practice to develop. No one is born knowing how to communicate, compromise, or adapt. These must be learned, and the learning process is a lifetime one.
Highly sought-after soft skills in any workplace, military or not, include:
- Conflict resolution
- Conflict resolution
- Work ethic
When you enlist, you put yourself in a position to quickly develop some soft skills in the training environment. It does not matter whether you enter basic training as a new Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, Coast Guard member, Reservist, or as a member of the National Guard. Basic Training requires you to learn to adapt, communicate, and work as a team.
Many of these soft skills are not things that can be broken down into formal training. Others can be taught but require experience with the skills to truly learn.
You can teach someone to be a better communicator by showing them the need to be clear, direct, and to the point. You may not experience developing a work ethic in the same way.
Translating Soft Skills To Your Civilian Career
The difficulty some transitioning service members have when leaving military life involves how to bring the soft skills learned in uniform into a differently-structured work environment.
In the military, your mission is determined “above your pay grade”, and your marching orders come down from your major command, your theater commander, your base commander, unit commander, etc.
Feedback may be solicited the same as in the private sector, but that feedback is understood to be supplementary and not necessarily a deciding factor in how to structure a mission or task.
On the outside, however, there may be much discussion, disagreement, contention, or excessive time spent on details those used to military life might find…more inconsequential (at least at first). This is one area where your soft skills learned in the military will face a major challenge.
It can be difficult to translate the skills you gain in the military environment if you expect your new workplace to operate under the same chain of command procedures you were used to in your old job. It will take more patience than some realize to learn how to use soft skills in these very different working conditions.
Those who are not used to the rigors of military life may disregard core competencies and best practices you took for granted in uniform.
Veterans often experience frustration in adapting their skills (soft or otherwise) in environments where being on-time, on budget, and on mission don’t carry the same priority or level of urgency.
How To Develop Soft Skills
Some of the advice you’ll find on developing soft skills includes taking online courses, and there are some good examples of training that focuses on soft skills. One agency called edX (founded by Harvard and MIT) includes an actual professional certification program in soft skills.
Getting feedback in the workplace is a good way to evaluate and develop your soft skills. In your next employee feedback session you can always mention that you want to improve a set of skills in this area. Showing your supervisor you are interested in learning more than the specific technical aspects of your job can go a long way toward both your learning experience and your career.
One area sometimes overlooked by those who want to improve communication, empathy, and personal integrity? The wealth of online information about Human Resources (HR) issues. Believe it or not, studying topics relevant to HR can help you get a better understanding of interpersonal issues in the workplace.
The same skills needed to navigate a sexual harassment complaint or a workplace accessibility issue can be very helpful in other areas in the office.
Some things are best learned in a safe environment with a friend. Do you need to learn how to negotiate? Practicing with a trusted friend or room mate is one way to overcome the fear of haggling with another person.
Those who fear negotiations likely have little first-hand experience with them. Practice does indeed make perfect.
Advice On Using Soft Skills You Learn In The Military: Communication
Communicating in the workplace means finding a way to navigate a diverse group of attitudes, opinions, sensitivities, and needs. It’s not enough in today’s workplace to effectively communicate your ideas, plans, or goals.
What SHOULD happen? Considering how your communication may affect any number of other areas including how others perceive your attitudes toward them based on the substance of your words.
In the military, the phrase “embrace the suck” and terms similar to it indicate a corporate culture that asks its members to minimize complaints and work on how the team can overcome obstacles.
But try saying “embrace the suck” to a brand new co-worker who is used to an office culture where elevated levels of complaining are the norm. It won’t take long to learn that things can work very differently outside the Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.
All the newcomer hears is the type of discussions actively discouraged in the old work environment. All the experienced employee is likely to hear from the newbie saying “embrace the suck” is a kind of inflexibility or rules-based orientation that may be unwelcome from a stranger.
Context is very important, and porting over aspects of your past office culture may not be suitable on the outside.
If you are reporting to a new job (even if you are still serving in the military) it’s best to approach your new job with an attitude of flexibility–you may not be given a choice when it comes to dealing with certain types of workplace instability.
It may be best to survey your environment and figure out areas where you may be asked to broaden your horizons, try new things, work with people with backgrounds or cultures you are unfamiliar with, work on jobs other than your own assigned work, etc.
Learning how to be flexible has a lot to do with empathy in some cases. How does it make others feel if you can’t compromise or meet someone in the middle to achieve common goals? Learning both flexibility and empathy can be quite valuable in any career field.
Teamwork is one soft skill quickly learned in the military. Remember what it took to help you understand what it means to function as the member of a team? Do you remember feeling lost and clueless before sorting all that out?
Those with more teamwork experience bring a valuable skill indeed to any workplace, but your teamwork skills don’t mean much if you can’t put yourself in another person’s situation and see the work through their eyes.
Remember that the least experienced person can greatly benefit from your teamwork skills, while contemplating that it’s also good to remember that all team members have something to bring to the job. You can learn just as much from the least experienced worker as you can from the most experienced.
The key is to recognize HOW to learn from these people and what to do with that information.
Why does integrity get mentioned in a list of soft skills? Because whether expressly stated in a job ad, interview, or hiring meeting, personal and business integrity is a valuable thing.
Ask any defense contractor how they feel about Edward Snowden or any other American accused of espionage and you’re likely to get an earful about someone’s views on personal integrity. Regardless of who you agree with in that arena it’s an important reminder that employers consider your integrity to be an important part of the hiring process.
You aren’t likely to be asked if you have high levels of integrity. But you will be asked how your personal philosophy affects your work, and many consider this to be the same thing.
What some don’t consider when thinking about personal integrity is that the military provides important signifiers. Your security clearance, for example, is a kind of testament to the integrity you bring to your job.
Those with clearances have been investigated and reviewed with the final decision on whether you get a clearance or not depending on a variety of factors–including integrity. It’s a good thing to remember when you are looking for ways to show an employer you can be trusted.
Planning And Problem Solving
In military circles, it’s generally understood that planning is subject to change. “The fog of war” is a telling favorite phrase among military planners; it acknowledges that random forces and other factors may conspire to ruin a good plan and anticipates this accordingly.
But in the civilian world you may run into people who have never truly planned anything by comparison to how military missions are conducted. In situations like these, it’s just as important to know how to manage expectations and anticipate objections as it is knowing how to assemble a plan and carry it out.
Some will resist a veteran’s seemingly genetic need to plan things out in detail. Others will value this skill for what it is. The big job of the veteran in these cases is to pick battles carefully, choose the “right hill to die on” when it comes to standing your ground on a particular planning issue, and knowing when to be more flexible and willing to meet others halfway.
Anticipating the fog of war, even where no war exists, is one of the most important parts of developing your planning and problem solving skills.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News