A bizarre incident occurred near my community last winter that holds lessons for everyone in the business world. A suburban commuter train filled with hundreds of passengers during the morning rush was delayed for almost two hours while local police searched for a man aboard with a gun. Not only that train, but all others following on the same line were backed up, causing thousands of commuters to be late for work or other appointments. Police located the gunman, who turned out to be a U.S. Secret Service agent authorized and maybe even required to be armed.

It all stemmed from a cascade of misunderstanding. The agent normally drove to his office in downtown Chicago, but hearing radio reports of snow turning that morning’s traffic to a crawl, he decided to take the train instead-the first time he had ever done so. Being unfamiliar with the system, the Secret Service agent asked a ticket agent at the train station whether there were metal detectors on the train, because he had a gun. That shook up the ticket agent, who notified police after the Secret Service passenger had boarded his train. Police armed with automatic rifles intercepted it at the next station. They evacuated and searched several cars worth of passengers before locating the Secret Service agent based on the ticket agent’s description. It took them awhile to check him out, causing further delay as well as considerable anxiety among the passengers.

Let’s examine what went wrong here:

The Secret Service agent failed to identify himself as a law enforcement officer when casually informing the ticket agent he had a gun. The message lacked context.

The startled ticket agent failed to question the man further. You would think most people would say, “Huh?” and get some clarification. Fear may have played a role here, although I suspect the Secret Service agent didn’t look like a thug and a crazed gunman is unlikely to volunteer that he is packing.

You can’t really blame the police for the way they handled it, given the sketchy information provided them. So what we have here is a classic example of how a small communication breakdown can have oversized consequences.

Sound familiar? Don’t things like this happen almost every day in your business operations?


How many times have the wrong materials or equipment been delivered because someone neglected to specify the size, horsepower or whatever needed for the job at hand? Or maybe the right product got sent, but to the wrong place because someone forgot to mention an exception to the normal delivery location.

Imprecise communication runs rampant throughout society. There’s a reason why the phonetic “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie …” system is used instead of alphabet letters by the military, air traffic controllers and other occupations where a failure to communicate can have deadly consequences. They know it can be hard to distinguish the “C” sound from D, E, G, P, T, V and Z amid radio static and chaos.

Even in more serene settings it’s easy to be misunderstood. Whenever asked to give my name to someone over the phone, for obvious reasons I automatically begin by saying “I’ll spell that for you.” Nonetheless, when things get sent to me I’ve seen that z replaced by any and all of the aforementioned “ee”-sounding letters from time to time.

If letters get so commonly confused, think of how easy it is to misunderstand words, phrases or expressions. And even if they get understood correctly, there’s that issue of context. The English language is filled with ambiguities in which words and expressions can have more than one meaning. Consider the following:

A distributor called a vendor to order two truckloads of pipe. Business suddenly took a downturn, and just before delivery the distributor called to tell the vendor, “Cut the order in half.”

Sure enough, when the two trucks arrived, each piece of pipe was cut in half!

I don’t know if this incident really happened, but it serves to illustrate how important it is to be alert for ambiguity.


Vagueness is another communication breakdown that can have drastic consequences. That’s basically what happened in the conversation between the Secret Service agent and the railroad employee, who was told someone was carrying a gun but not why. Imagine making an appointment to meet someone “after dinner.” How useful would that be without telling the person at what time you finish eating dinner?

Imprecise communication not only leads to mistakes, it also wastes time. Instead of communicating something once, it causes both the sender and recipient of the message to go back and forth trying to clarify what’s going on.

Even worse, they won’t bother to clarify. They’ll simply act upon what they think the request is about. That’s how two truckloads of pipe get cut in half.

Another form of miscommunication is ignoring context. Consider the following tale. Whether true or not, it illustrates the point that the exact same words can mean different things depending on subtle inflections of voice.

Just short of touching down at an airport, the pilot determined that the runway was too short for a landing approach. So he decided to circle around and try it again.

“Takeoff power!” he yelled to his co-pilot. The pilot, of course, wanted extra power to lift back up to circle around. But the co-pilot interpreted the command as take OFF power. In response, he turned off the engines. The plane crashed.

This fatal mistake stemmed from failure to understand the context of a situation. The difference between “takeoff” and “take OFF” might involve a subtle voice inflection. Nonetheless, the co-pilot should have known from the context of the situation that shutting power off was not the thing to do. The pilot, too, must share the blame. He should have been more precise in saying, “Full engine power.”

Contractors and everyone else in the business world must develop an instinct for when certain things just don’t “feel” right. Maybe it’s a material order that’s uncommonly large or small, or a strange looking product code number, or just something that doesn’t make sense to an experienced trade worker.

In these cases it’s always better to ask questions or double-check rather than risk the consequences. W&C