The real point of distinction for Green Berets versus their door-kicking brethren is the ability to work by, with, and through foreign fighters. Candidates are selected (or, more often, not selected) based in part on their ability to build rapport both with their foreign partners and with their team members.

Many an SF candidate has made it through the physical and mental rigors only to learn that their ‘social’ skills – playing as a member of a team and acting mindfully towards partner forces – aren’t good enough to make the cut. It sounds a little harsh to non-select a guy because he’s a bit of a prick, but one wrong word spoken to the wrong guy at the wrong time can get you – or your team – killed. What better security than a widespread network of loyal friends, with their ears to the ground?

You can’t really teach it, it can’t easily be learned: there’s a specific type of man who wants it to suck, who likes going to war with no real support-chain behind them, jumped-in with nothing but a solid knife, some well-worn boots, and his own charm, that trust-before-you-test relationship building. It is one of the key skills used by SF, and their ability to do so in austere and complex environments allows them greater freedom of movement than other SOF units. Building rapport is a matter of checking one’s own ego and operating nimbly on instinct. Being able to flex, bend, and adapt to cultures other than one’s own is a key mark of a mature and competent man. Built upon a moral framework and a desire to accomplish the mission no matter what, Green Berets learn to work by, with, and through their counterparts.

There’s a few specific rapport-building techniques that I’ve learned, mostly from men wiser than me, and I’d like to pass them on to you as everyday TTPs that you may want to try on your own battlefield.

– Know the operational environment, and become genuinely interested in it 

This entails more than just a breeze through Wikipedia and a pointy-talkie. Understanding and expressing interest requires a combination of stalker-level interest in people’s lives and relating it to one’s own personal context. It’s as true on the battlefield as it is in the cubicle farm.

In one country, we were frustrated with the conduct of our locals until we realized that the fundamental concept of ’cause and effect’ was totally foreign, and that because of the education of our students (namely that they have a book that tells them to burn all the other books), each step had to be explained with a rationale that could be understood and comprehended in context. “We must aim our rifles and shoot carefully; only one well-placed bullet is needed to kill one’s enemy, saving more bullets for other enemies!” as an example. By realizing that there was a gap in understanding, we could communicate on terms that made sense to everyone.

Attempting a Special Operations Selection as an Older Candidate

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We also learned not only the names of our partners, but the names of their family members. By working hard to commit simple names to memory, we were able to build conversation and establish a genuine interest in their lives. They were more willing to train when they knew we had their future and the futures of their families in mind during training. A passing “Howdy Aziz, how’s your new baby Fahran doing?” will mean the world to a proud father, and her name is probably the most beautiful word in the world to him.

Understanding the big picture helps, too. In the Middle East, the complex web of tribal alliances means that an understanding of major players and their status and influence demonstrated that the problems we were trying to solve with our partner force went beyond just the personal. The problems were on par with how complex and subtle those relationships can be, and how much a part of the Afghan psyche they are.

– Criticism is a dish best served… warm

I don’t care how hard or weathered you are, if you genuinely cocked it up and someone calls you out publicly for it, it is going to sting. There’s this theory that, having evolved into city/state/national societies only recently, the human psyche is still genetically and physiologically stuck in tribal mode and won’t catch up for a while. Being shamed by the tribe was once a matter of life and death and the destruction of one’s bloodline. Nothing is more damaging to rapport than public shaming. This is especially true in the culture of fragile egos I’ve often encountered with foreign partners, especially Middle Eastern officers.

But how can progress be made when someone is genuinely fucked up? I recommend you go to the kitchen and slicing them up a whole-wheat, heart-healthy Compliment Sandwich. By bolstering your critique on both sides with a genuine compliment, the blow is softened, its content is taken more seriously, and the relationship is maintained. Here’s how a Compliment Sandwich might sound:

“You’re doing a good job of securing the river crossings and our patrols haven’t hit an IED in a week, but we keep getting hit by small arms fire from the west, mysteriously close to where your cousin lives. But you’re a strong leader so I know you’ll figure out a way to stop that from happening.”

Compliments on the outside, constructive criticism on the inside.

– Small bribes break the ice, and they work

Think like a Green Beret: Plan your exfil first

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In any place where political correctness hasn’t turned everyone into monumental, health-conscious wussies, you can trade cigarettes for just about anything. Marlboros are preferred by everyone everywhere, except Europeans, who like Pall Malls. Batteries are the universal currency, and tall tales or a joke costs you nothing.

– Defer to the authority in the room, even if he’s not in charge of you

When I’m asking for something – even if I don’t have to ask for it – I like the statement “With your permission…” Note how with it, permission isn’t being asked, permission is implied as having already been given because he obviously would have given it anyway. It’s a slick technique and gets you the freedom you need to get your job done. This works best on officers in the rear for me. Their egos always need a little maintenance. Priorities of work, men.

– Ask a cabbie

This one is less of a ‘how’ and more of a ‘who.’ I’ve never been to a foreign city that didn’t funnel their hardest, most-street-wise masochists into the cab-driving profession. Your Western cabbie, he has plush leather seats and air conditioning, he eases into traffic like a fat mob don. Your third-world cab starts like a bad day, corners on two wheels, and stops on a peseta. Slip these guys an Andy Jackson and you’ll have an unshaven, pipe-hitting, foaming-at-the-mouth QRF/exfil on standby 24/7. Now that’s my kind of backup.

– Shut the hell up and listen like your life depends on it, because it does

If you aren’t actively listening to what someone has to say because you’re too busy thinking of what you’re going to say next, you are going to die. Paying attention to what is going on, and being able to repeat it back to someone in the same vocabulary that they’re using, is a great way to show empathy, which is what every human wants to have when they’re bitching about the weather, the government, or that one time their grain elevator got mortared. Combining their last statement with the solution you’re proposing is a key way to achieve consensus: “I’ve heard you’re a reasonable man. I see that you’re having trouble with the Taliban mining your roads, and so, with your permission, I’d like to introduce you to the local mine clearance commander who we’ve been working with…”

I’m no master diplomat, and sometimes, no matter what you do, Aziz is gonna be pissed that you killed his Uncle Bob. But with the proper application of respect, a little ego-check and some self-conscious thinking, most problems can be solved just by sitting down and sipping tea with your venerable homeboys.