Book review: Hostage At The Table

05 May 2014

Hostage at the TableHow Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance

Author: George Kohlrieser
ISBN: 978-0-7879-8384-0
Review by Tara Rivkin

How would you react in a hostage situation? What would be your initial response if you were surprised by an armed intruder and threatened? Do you think, simply by your state of mind and ability to bond, you could talk down an emotionally distressed individual who knows that jail is a given once he gives up his hostage? What does any of this have to do with leadership in the business world?

According to George Kohlreiser – psychologist, hostage negotiator, professor of leadership, IMD – the lessons of hostage negotiation can be applied to leadership and constructive interpersonal relations in an organisational atmosphere. As most people naturally succumb to the impulses propelled by the hardwiring of their brains (these impulses are often defined by a primitive need to spot danger as early as possible in order to escape it), they often do not approach interpersonal conflict or difficult scenarios in the most beneficial of ways for all involved. They may be defensive, aggressive, remote, anxious or self-serving. They may even engage in avoidant behaviour in order to escape the ‘danger’ of dispute and discord. This dispute and discord may be between opposing parties, but it hints at an internal tendency to become hostage to one’s own mind and its unhelpful inclinations and reflexes. Would any of this be helpful in a real-life hostage negotiation.

In 2005, Ashley Smith was taken hostage by Brian Nichols in Atlanta, Georgia. The day before, he had killed four people at a courthouse. Smith avoided this fate by creating a strong bond with Nichols. Although she was tied up, she became a confidant to Nichols – they talked about God, family and the manhunt going on outside. Smith even read to him from a book about finding one’s purpose in life. They bonded over their young children and Smith told Nichols that her son would have no one if he killed her. When Nichols said he was “already dead,” Smith tried to convince him that life is a miracle and that he too has a purpose. He untied her and she told him that he should spread the word of the Lord in prison.

The fact that Smith is religious and used God as a bonding point with her hostage-taker is not the point; she developed a powerful dialogue with Nichols, all the while remaining level-headed, and created an atmosphere of respect and interpersonal connection. She even made Nichols pancakes in the morning. He said at one point throughout the long night that he “just wanted some normalness to his life.”

Kohlreiser uses many examples of hostage negotiation to make the leap to the business world, including the famous incident in 1993 in Waco, Texas, when more than seventy men, women and children were killed (read more on Wikipedia). “There are lessons from this incident that can be applied to the business world,” Kohlreiser writes. “When there are territorial disputes between departments or differences of opinion between colleagues, a stand-off position often can be avoided through the power of dialogue and by simply talking through the issues.”

It may not be that simple in complex scenarios involving cults, high-powered weapons including explosives, and a delusional leader who believes he is the final prophet, but Kohlreiser doesn’t simplify the issues. The point is that there is a power to bonding, dialogue, and understanding others’ motivations that should not be underestimated, no matter the severity of the situation.

Kohlreiser’s book addresses issues surrounding positivity and reshaping scenarios, mental imagery and the power of focusing on the goal while keeping negative or risky elements in your periphery, mastering mental states and becoming adept at switching between them depending on context, and many other essential components of being a successful leader and running a healthy organisation with a collective vision. All of these are steeped in deep research, interesting anecdotes and supportive anecdotes and references.

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