Implicit Communications

By Capt William D. Harrop III

JASK, IRAN 0230 10 NOV 2008. LtCol Norm Allen cursed quietly as the tiny vibration pad slowly thumped into his cheek bone. “Which company commander was it now?” he thought as he reached for the frequency control knob on his radio vest. “Station calling, this is Dagger 6. Go ahead,” Alien said as he squeezed the throat mike dose to his neck.

“Dagger 6, this is Shamrock 6. Contact! Wait out.”

“Well, this is it.” Alien thought to himself. “It’s finally begun. The 0100 L-hour went off smoothly. All the MV-22s made it into their landing zones and the companies readied their initial objectives. The invasion was on.”

The sharp radio transmission Allen heard was from Capt Leonard C. Matthews IV, a capable, confident officer with whom Allen enjoyed a unique relationship. He really couldn’t put his finger on it. There was just something there: an unspoken understanding, a mutual confidence each had in the abilities of the other. Allen knew how Matthews thought-Matthews seemed to be able to anticipate Alien’s next order. Maybe it was all of those combined arms staff trainer exercises he’d forced the S-3 to put together or maybe it was these new radios-‘actuals’ they called them, because actuals were the ones on the nets. What he did know, however, was that the Corps’ recent emphasis on implicit communications was really paying off.

Squelch broke again. “Dagger 6, this is Dagger 3.”

“Go ahead 3.” Allen replied automatically.

Maj John McCandless, Allen’s operations officer, was calling. “Dagger 6, just got off the hook with the MEU 3.” The handset keyed again, “His computer screen isn’t making any sense to him, and he wants to know what’s going on, over.”

Allen thought for a second and quickly replied, “Understand 3. I’ll take care of it. Out.” Allen thought to himself, “This guy just doesn’t get it, does he? I don’t think he’s ever heard of, let alone understood, the meaning of ‘trust tactics,’ not to mention the fact that he still hadn’t learned how to operate a computer.”

Just then the squelch broke again: “6, this is Shamrock 6. Just engaged what I believe was a squad-sized unit. One KlA and one WlA. Enemy broke contact. I’m pursuing east toward Checkpoint 15.”

“Roger Shamrock 6,” Allen replied. “I’ll get a medevac headed your way, Len. 6 out.”

Watching Allen and Matthews work together was nothing less than exhilarating. It was almost as if each was somehow in the other’s presence, each able to observe and communicate until the other without actually being there. It seemed as if they had reached the pinnacle of implicit communications.

Then Allen instinctively reached to the control knob so he could change his frequency to one that would connect him to a satellite relay on MEU command net, a satellite communications link. He thought to himself”patience, Norm, patience”-and began to sort out the situation with the MEU S-3. At least he didn’t have to worry about Matthews.

Although the story of LtCol Allen and Capt Matthews is fictitious, their relationship represents an example of highly developed, implicit communications skills between a commander and subordinate. Today, units or individuals that possess this ability are, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. No longer should we be satisfied with an unacceptably small percentage of leaders and subordinates who, either through conscious effort or luck, communicate implicitly. The challenge is to educate Marines everywhere on the concept of implicit communications and empower them with the tools necessary to develop this skill. The end result is to ensure that this form of communications becomes what it should be-the rule, not the exception. First, however, one must understand the nature and relevance of this communications technique.

Implicit communications is communicating through mutual understanding using a minimum of key, well-understood phrases or even anticipating each other’s thoughts. Unlike the written word captured on paper, implicit communications is not something that is easy to wrap your arms around. Although most of us have experienced some form of implicit communications in our lives, few actually realize there is a term for it. Some describe it as “the Vulcan mind meld,” others simply say “I’m not sure what it is; we just click,” or “he understands how I think and anticipates my orders.” The fact of the matter is that each of these describes some type of ability to communicate implicitly. Let’s take a look at two, famous commanders who understood and used this powerful tool.

Consider the following example of Rommel and his artillery commander. During the invasion of France Rommel’s artillery commander, after moving one of his units into position, sent a simple yet powerfully complete message that was both informative, inquiring, and, by its brevity, displayed some form of mutual understanding-“Artillery commander to the general. Maj Crasemann has gone into position 43 left, what is the mission?” In just 17 words Rommel’s artillery commander successfully conveyed not only positional information and a request for a new mission, but also indicated a readiness to fire-and, deeper than that, there appears to be a sense of confidence that even without further guidance some type of action will be taken. Mutual understanding and a minimum of key, well-understood phrases are the secret.

Another commander who understood the potential of implicit communications was Lord Nelson. At the battle of Trafalgar, after having carefully imbued into his subordinates “his sense of personal leadership and doctrine,” Lord Nelson, after the action began with the combined Franco-Spanish Armada, made but three general signals: “England expects that every man will do his duty,” to “prepare to anchor after the close of the day,” and to “engage the enemy more closely.” By building a mutual understanding between himself and his subordinates, Nelson was able to develop a level of implicit communications so strong that even after his death his fleet commanders continued to follow his intent and were eventually victorious.

Implicit communications is important to Marines because our ability to execute mission tactics using decentralized control is tied directly to our ability to communicate implicitly. Decentralized control based on responsible, implicit understanding is faster, more effective, and infinitely more productive than centralized control based on explicit communications. Implicit communications can improve our ability to influence the actions of subordinates while broadening the the effectiveness of commander’s intent. As a result, leaders who foster implicit communications lead units that operate harmoniously and at a higher tempo. Today more than ever, the requirement for commanders to influence the actions of subordinates at the lowest level demands the ability to communicate implicitly. In short, implicit communications is a warfighting imperative.

Having defined and established the relevance of implicit communications, we can now ask the following questions: “What factors affect our ability to communicate implicitly?” and, “Using those factors as a model, how can we improve our ability to communicate implicitly?”

Since there is no simple formula for communicating implicitly it’s necessary to develop our own. I believe that there are at least four separate, but interdependent, factors that affect our ability to communicate implicitly. (See Figure 1). Each factor in turn, when examined, can provide the guidance necessary to create requirements, missions, and tasks used to develop a training strategy designed to improve implicit communications.


Relationships are the keys to building mutual understanding. We must teach Marines the importance of building positive relationships between peers, seniors, and subordinates. Leaders, in particular, must be made aware of the requirement to develop and nurture personal yet professional relationships with subordinates for the purpose of building mutual understanding. Relationships at all levels will improve once we teach our Marines that they must possess a desire both to appreciate how their leaders think and to reveal enough of themselves so that those around them can understand how they think.

Communications Skills

The ability to communicate a vision, written or orally, is essential to implicit communications. Marines must be taught and must practice this art. Communicating a mental image is the essence of military communications and at the heart of the commander’s intent. It is the mental picture that improves mutual understanding. Mental pictures are important because they are easily understood, remembered, and carried in the minds of subordinates to be accessed and used frequently, guiding and shaping decisions based on the desire and intent of the commander.


Education is crucial to implicit communications. Without an awareness of, and an appreciation for, the strengths, limitations, and obligations associated with it, implicit communications is dead in the water. Consequently, we must focus teaching this concept at every level and work to improve the psychological education of our Corps-especially such topics as decisionmaking and human dimensions of the battlefield.


Probably one of the most important factors in determining whether implicit communications can be realized is through training. Training, or the sharing of common experiences, is at the core of implicit communications. Training prevents implicit communications from turning into recklessness. Therefore, the following objective must be common to all training evolutions: To improve our implicit communications ability by increasing mutual understanding through shared experiences and interpersonal interaction. Some training methods essential to the development of implicit communications are tactical decision games (TDGs), and combined arms staff trainers (CASTs). TDGs and CASTs improve implicit communications by building a shared way of thinking and a common philosophy within units. While there are many other techniques that will improve implicit communications, these two are particularly effective, easy to execute, and inexpensive.

So what does all this mean to you, the warfighter? It means that the time has come to educate yourself about something that you may have already experienced. Train yourselves and your units to improve your ability to communicate implicitly. Lastly, empower, train, and educate your junior leaders, particularly your noncommissioned officers, and trust them to execute mission tactics based on decentralized control.