Human Factors: The Power of Words

Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish.”  —Hermann Hesse

I was just treated to a full-body pat-down by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA).

For frequent flyers, tales of woe regarding the TSA are like, um, opinions. Everybody has one. Yet for most, complaining about the TSA or any other agency where government employees wear uniforms and expect people to do what they’re told is like complaining about the weather. They don’t expect it to change a thing.

I don’t expect to change the TSA. But my experience may change the way to approach giving instructions in high hazard environments like a chemical process facility.

My Encounter

I was heading home to St. Louis after a week on site at a facility in the Great Lakes region. Airport security was busy and everyone seemed a little tense. It didn’t help any that many people, including me, were encountering for the first time the command to “remove any food from your bags.” As I approached the scanner, the TSA stopped the passenger in front of me. After some confusion between two TSA officers, one of them patted him on his back pockets, which he concluded were empty. Then the other TSA officer, the short, barrel-chested, shaved-headed one, impatiently gestured for me to enter the scanner. I travel a lot, so I immediately entered the scanner, placed my feet on the two yellow footprints painted on the floor and raised my hands over my head, as I have hundreds of times before.

This, even as the TSA officer barked commands at me. “FEET SPREAD.” “HANDS OVER YOUR HEAD.” The scanner arm spun. “MOVE.” I complied and stepped out of the scanner. I didn’t need to be yelled at anymore than I already had been.

“I SAID ‘DON’T MOVE’!” he yelled.

“Sorry,” I replied. “I thought you said—” He shook his head and gestured for me to step back into the scanner, which I did. He scanned me again. I waited a beat, and then stepped out again. An alarm went off.

“What happened?” I heard another officer ask.

“He moved,” my short, barrel-chested, shaved-headed friend answered.

Then, after another tense moment between the officers while they decided who was going to do what, the second TSA officer told me that I was going to get a full-body pat-down and asked if I wanted it in private or out in the open. I opted to be in the open.

What Went Wrong

As the second TSA officer gave me more instructions—“face your luggage,” “feet further apart”, “arms straight out”—I thought about what went wrong. Had I failed in some way? I concluded that I had not. It was not my role or responsibility to communicate with the TSA. It was their job to make me understand what they wanted from me. Had I failed to seek clarification when instructions were unclear? No. The instructions had seemed very clear to me. Even if they hadn’t, the attitude and the demeaner of the first officer made it very clear that questioning his instructions would be unwelcome. His interest was in giving orders, not in being understood.

“I’m now going to pat down your zipper area.”

Not all my thoughts focused on what went wrong. I was also intensely aware of how humiliating this experience was, and had I been running late, how frustrating the delay would be. I was equally aware that the second TSA officer, the one patting me down, was doing this instead of doing his regular duties, at a time when the checkpoint was crowded and tense with people dealing with new and unfamiliar procedures. Worse, he was being observed by yet another officer—her name tag included “Supervisor”—who undoubtedly had other duties, as well.

Different Instructions

The first TSA officer had said, “Don’t move.” I hadn’t heard the first word. Just the same, I believed him when he insisted that’s what he said. I missed one word and the meaning of the instructions was turned on its head.

An early childhood therapist once explained to me that instructions to toddlers should not be about what a parent doesn’t want them to do, but should be about what they should do instead. Instead of “Don’t climb on the television,” tell them, “Here, let’s play with the blocks.” Or in our industry, instead of “Don’t go over 185 C,” the instructions should be “Stay below 180 C.”

I received several instructions at the TSA security checkpoint. “Feet spread,” where he told me what to do. “Hands over your head,” where again, he told me what to do. Then, “Don’t move,” where he shifted away from telling me what to do.

A more effective instruction would have been “STAND STILL.” It still has the virtue of being a short command. It has attention-getting sibilance. Best of all, it has built in redundancy; whether one hears “stand still”, just “stand”, or just “still”, the meaning stays the same.

Different Attitude

In high hazard environments, it is important that people understand their instructions. It is the responsibility of those giving instructions to give good instructions. None of us are perfect, though, so we are bound to give less than perfect instructions on occasion.

It is at that point, when one person has given instructions and another has received instructions, that communication happens or communication breaks down. It is at that point, when the person receiving instructions confirms their understanding, that there is communication. If the person receiving instructions cannot confirm their understanding or seek clarification, there is no communication, only words.

An attitude that screams, “Shut up and do what you’re told,” is an attitude that shuts down communication. It is during tense, hazardous situations that communication is most critical. An attitude that interferes with communication makes the hazardous situation worse, not better.

As I Walked Away

When my full-body pat-down was over, I turned to the supervisor. “This was humiliating and frustrating, but I assume that it’s not something you wanted to happen.” She shook head. “I imagine that you and the officer, at a busy time like this, have plenty of other things to do than pat down a traveler who poses no threat.” She nodded.

“I think there is a training issue here,” I continued. “While I’m sure that officer over there,” and I pointed out my short, barrel-chested, shaved-headed friend, “said ‘Don’t move,’ all I heard was ‘Move.’ If you don’t want this to happen again and again during this busy travel weekend, I believe you will want to address this.” She nodded again and I went to gather my belongs from the conveyor. Otherwise, its going to be a long weekend, I thought.

As I walked away, I glanced back and saw her speaking to the first TSA officer. I didn’t hear what she said, but I heard him loudly say, “I told him, ‘Don’t move.’”

It was going to be a long weekend.

Giving Instruction

The advantage of written instructions that are prepared in advance is that there is an opportunity to review them for clarity. Nonetheless, all work environments require oral instructions. As you give oral instructions, keep in mind the potential for misunderstanding, even of the simplest two-word commands. Do your best to give positive instructions—not in the sense of being uplifting or encouraging, but in the sense of saying what you want done, rather than what you do not want done. Losing a single word like “Not” or “Don’t” changes the entire meaning of an instruction.

Finally, remember while the person receiving your instructions is not perfect, neither are you. Communication is how you overcome that mutual imperfection. Keep the channel of communication open as you give or receive instructions, taking the time to confirm understanding. It will make a difference.

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