Former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier Loren Schofield continues his series on building rapport with strangers. You can read his last article here.
To illustrate the problems of misunderstanding culture in foreign lands, I like to use the example of democracy in the Middle East — it is a foolish notion and one destined for failure. We can’t expect whatever form of democracy other people choose to be exactly like ours. You have to find a middle ground that takes into account that countries history, culture and social norms.
Combat creates a bond, a brotherhood that is hard to break. When you live, work, and fight shoulder to shoulder with people of a separate culture, it’s easy to become emotionally involved. It’s easy, especially when these people are honorable and likable. You find yourself assimilating with them. As I wrote in my last article, Rapport Building 101, the best advice I ever received is to never go more than 49% native. My first team sergeant understood rapport, but also the dangers that could come with developing it. It’s a fine line to walk, as is everything dealing with Foreign Internal Defense (FID), especially during combat.
Many soldiers learn quickly to compartmentalize, and Special Operations Forces are experts at it. But from my experience Special Forces are able to do it better than most. Compartmentalized minds have diversified personalities which enable them to behave differently and appropriately in a variety of situations such that they can behave like a boss or worker on the job, a parent and/or spouse and/or grown child at home, or a teammate in a sport. To be competent in each area, they are said to be good at “having boundaries” such that one role does not blur into another.
One of the challenges, however, of being highly compartmentalized is that over time, people may lean more and more into those compartments where they feel most competent, capable and confident. That can cause other compartments to either atrophy from disuse or in some cases never develop in the first place. Over time these people can appear to be more like “human doings” that don’t feel particularly present, even as they appear quite competent in a particular function. Think of information technology instead of human resources.
Training quickly refines and expands one’s ability to compartmentalize. The hard training that is involved, starting at Assessment and Selection (honestly, it never stops), is part of the mental selection and mental training. The ability to separate the pain and discomfort, and to push forward in spite of it, is just one way that it’s used to find people who have the ability to create those compartments or can already do it. If a person can’t do this effectively,f they will quit or be booted.
Special Forces are better at being able to do this is because they are required to have more compartments. There is the family, deployment team, group, Army, and America. They also have to be able to fully immerse themselves with whatever local unit, tribe, sect, they happen to be working or interacting with. Between combat deployments they are still conducting non-combat FID in multiple foreign countries. Each of these examples has a different compartment, and each compartment has only what is needed to succeed in that one situation.
My compartments became significant. Whenever I deployed (and there were a lot of deployments), I got into the habit of asking my wife and kids to drop me off and leave. I didn’t want them to wait with me or hang out like a lot of other families did. They would drop me off at the curb and we would say our goodbyes. I would watch them drive away, then go in and hang out until it was time to load the plane.
Standing on the curb watching them drive away was the beginning for me. It was part of the process I developed to help me switch compartments. After the plane took off, I would take an Ambien and sleep for about four hours. When I woke up the family compartment was locked and the deployment compartment was ready to go. I would only open the family compartment when it was safe, or when I was on the phone talking to them. It was never opened fully, but cracked just enough to give me what I needed to talk to them. As soon as I hung up, I locked it back up. It was never opened fully until I walked back into my house.
I have to admit that the family compartment never really completely opened while I was in the service. Knowing I had another deployment coming up, or could be sent somewhere with very little notice forced me to keep a tight hold on it so it could easily be shut on the next trip.
Some compartments necessitated switching from one to the other in the blink of an eye; others took time to prepare. In Kosovo, our primary mission was to act as liaisons between the locals and the U.S. General in charge of the American sector. We walked around in only a uniform and concealed pistol and had to be able to go from friendly conversation to sensing a threat and drawing in an instant. Some people refer to that as “flipping a switch,” which is a good analogy of going between times of quiet to sudden violence. Flipping a switch, while a good descriptive phrase, doesn’t change the fact that those situations required two very different compartments. If you couldn’t switch fast enough, you died.
People who can’t flip that switch either became too trusting or too friendly with locals, and forget exactly where they are, or they can’t relax and be in the moment. They would subconsciously perceive everyone as a threat, which the locals could easily sense. This created a lack of trust, which prevented the rapport from developing.
The point is that when you can compartmentalize, you are able to give 100% of your 49% to the people that you train and work with. This allows you to be better able to build that trust without losing yourself. You can keep the American and the U.S. Soldier compartment safe and switch when needed.