Don't Be Held Hostage by Miscommunication

By Janey Osterlind on 10 December 2010 (Updated 16 December 2010) 1 comment
Photo: Elvis Santana

I was recently held hostage at work.

OK, so I fudge a little: Recently, there was reported to be a hostage situation around the corner from my building. I first caught wind of the incident when a guy in the department behind ours stuck his head in my door this morning and said, “There’s a hostage situation at the Governor’s Office Building and they’re locking our office doors. We’re going to check it out if you want to come.” Two thoughts popped into my head immediately:

  1. Who is crazy enough to want to go towards a situation where there’s likely to be shooting?
     
  2. The guy we’re interviewing for a job right now is going to think our whole town is crazy.

Phones started ringing, texts started coming in, and drama ensued. Our interviewee, Mr. L, finished his interview, but wasn’t able to go around the corner to our favorite cafe and enjoy a nice lunch because it was next door to the building where the supposed hostage event was taking place. And there were snipers on the roof. And helicopters circling overhead. Mr. L also wasn’t allowed to get his car out of the parking garage across the street from the building in order to drive to the airport for his flight home to Minneapolis.

Hours later, after Mr. L was finally allowed to leave in order to rush home in time for his family vacation (I kid you not), we learned what had happened with the hostage situation: Nothing. Seriously. Here’s how my local paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, described the non-event:

Police say the events apparently began when a woman in the building told of hearing someone in an elevator mention a hostage situation. She told another woman, who then called an alarm company, which called police around 10 a.m.

Seriously? I mean, an apparent game of telephone on an elevator in an office building started an enormous fracas downtown that lasted for hours.

So how does this situation relate to everyday business communications? The whole series of non-events got me to thinking that:

  1. Communication is key. Miscommunication can get wildly out of hand in a matter of minutes, so think about how your message is coming across before shouting it from the rooftops (or, in this case, before calling out the SWAT team).
     
  2. You should always question a message you receive before blindly acting. Not doing so could result in the workplace equivalent of snipers being posted on top of your office building and helicopters circling overhead.

Oh, and I’m also pretty positive that Mr. L. will not be accepting our job offer.

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Good post. Miscommunication often leads to trouble. While this situation was quite extreme, miscommunication happens on a daily basis. It can lead to many missed opportunities (in career and social life), added work that you wouldn't have done otherwise, missed work that you should have done, misinterpreted social signals (i.e. someone is hitting on you and you think they are just asking you for directions), and many others. The fact that what people say and what they mean are generally two completely different things which you have to correctly decipher makes things even more difficult.