Home All Are You Being Held Hostage Without Knowing It? (Book Review)

Are You Being Held Hostage Without Knowing It? (Book Review)

written by Sulynn 28 May 2010

Sulynn, MAPP '06, lives with her daughter in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She provides consulting and coaching services, leading her own company, Human Capital Perspectives. Sulynn is also the founder of the Asian Center for Applied Positive Psychology (ACAPP). Full bio.

Sulynn's articles are here.

BOOK REVIEW: George Kohlrieser (2006). Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance. A Warren Bennis Book, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

George Kohlrieser

George Kohlrieser

I love books that begin with a question, like Todd Kashdan’s Curious? and now the book by George Kohlrieser that asks, “Are you being held hostage without knowing it?” George Kohlrieser is a psychologist, hostage negotiator, and professor of organisational development at IMD, a leading business school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The yellow dust cover with the image of a handshake taking place against a fiery background plus the interesting profile of the author attracted me. I found the book exciting, a clever tapestry of psychological insights woven into the complexity of human conflict behavior, all set against the dramatic backdrop of riveting insider stories of hostage negotiation. I love the simplicity and flow of Kohlrieser’s writing, his flawless narration of true-to-life hostage situations steeped in lessons about how our minds and emotions work both for and against us in the face of conflict, perceived danger, and uncertainty about what to do about it.

Rewiring the brain

Rewiring the brain

Written in the first person, Hostage at the Table recognizes that nobody is exempt from either the basic fight-or-flight survival instinct common to all living creatures or to the human propensity for negativity. True to the psychotherapist in him, Kohlrieser deftly guides the reader to awareness of an inner desire to be more – to be able to overcome conflict, to influence others, and to perform at one’s personal best. This book introduces a succinct new vocabulary that playfully facilitates re-wiring the brain to accommodate new behavioral responses to previously delimiting situations or conditions.

Golden Nuggets

Each one of us may be held hostage by situations, other people, our fears, expectations or perceptions. We may also be entrapped by cognitive and emotional states which render us powerless and helpless. To live with a hostage-free state of mind is to set ourselves free from these delimiting gun-to-the-head psychological chains, and to aspire towards living a life of possibility and flourishing. Knowing our own motivations immunizes us against becoming hostages. Focusing our mind’s eye on desired positive outcomes and the benefits, instead of on our natural bias for negatives, can empower us to look past pain and frustration towards victory and success.

Negotiators at the Table

Negotiators at the Table

In a conflict situation, we tend to take on a hostage mentality which focuses on the negative and repeatedly tells us what we cannot do and that we will never get what we want. Bonding is the antidote. It is the ability to form and maintain a relationship with our ‘hostage-taker’, understanding his needs or motivations – his mind’s eye, despite our own inner emotions that urge us to be aggressive or to run away. Bonding establishes trust and places us in a position to refocus the other party’s mind’s eye from a negative state to a positive state, thus defusing tension and opening a pathway for negotiation and resolution. “When we know how to bond, we are better equipped to avoid being taken hostage.”

 We bond in a special way to some people, goals, or objects that protect, comfort, and energize us. They serve as anchors or secure bases – giving us a sense of security, freeing us from being hostages in our own minds, and emboldening us to train our mind’s eye on possibility, exploration, creativity and doing what gives us pleasure and satisfaction. Our secure bases encourage us be resilient and resolute in pursuing our positive outcomes. Loss of a secure base can result in dramatic emotional upheavals from which some people find it hard to recover, becoming hostages to their losses. Learning to deal with such grief is necessary to finding joy or new secure bases.

Conflict Management

The book’s most practical and useful offering, building on these psychological concepts, is Kohlrieser’s masterful lessons on the art of conflict management, holding effective dialogue, using the power of negotiation, and reining in our emotions. Avoiding conflict is a common way to become a hostage to it.

Peaceful resolution

Peaceful resolution

Conflict is a reflection of broken bonding or lack of bonding, and its resolution depends on the ability to re-establish bonding. Effective dialogue is when two people are engaged in an exchange of thought and reflection, striving towards a deeper understanding of each other even when they are in major disagreement. Negotiation is dialogue involving a process of bargaining to help further resolve differences through question-based clarification of motives while establishing the negotiator as a secure base who can be trusted.

Read This Book!

Hostage at the Table is highly relevant to all people who want to get out of their own way so they can form and maintain successful relationships and perform well. It is a book that you can pick up and start reading from any point. Each chapter ends with a brief summary and exactly four precise, actionable points to remember.

There is a rich bibliography for those who want to read further. For those who like to dip into the book by topic, the index is comprehensive and handy. After reading this book, I have a new reference grid for organizing psychological concepts into applications for coaching, teaching, and training. Kohlrieser’s clever use of metaphors and true-to-life stories is a tremendous aid to making the lessons stick.

Alas! In my eagerness to share this gem of wisdom and priceless insights, my review pays short shrift to the richness of the research and eloquence of the award-winning author. Hostage at the Table is a book that defies a brief overview. This book ranks as a thriller even though it’s categorized under ‘management/negotiation’. The reader’s bonus is living happily ever after in a hostage-free state of mind.


Kohlrieser, G. (2010). Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance (J-B Warren Bennis Series). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.


New START Negotiators at the Russian Mission in Geneva courtesy of US Mission Geneva
Neurons courtesy of MikeBlogs
Peaceful resolution courtesy of NomadicLass

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Sherri Fisher 28 May 2010 - 7:49 am

Hi, Sulynn–
This is a rockin’ good read of a review–so well written. This sounds like my idea of a good beach read–a book you can dip into anywhere and that will refresh the way you think about the rules of engagement. Thanks for sharing a good book!

Jeremy McCarthy 28 May 2010 - 8:12 am

Todd Kashdan meets Tom Clancy. Cool. Thanks for introducing me to a book I hadn’t heard of.

Eleanor 31 May 2010 - 11:11 am

Thank you for this great review – your great coverage of many, many interesting concepts in the review only made me want to read the book even more! The bit that really grabs me is the relevance of all this to our personal relationships, families and workplace relationships – how much more successful we will be once our awareness of this increases, and the barriers between these spheres dissolve.


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