Hostage at the Table: A book review by Bob Morris

Hostage @Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance
George Kohlrieser
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint (2006)

How to avoid becoming or remaining a “hostage” to self-defeating expectations of you (including your own)

The title of this review was suggested by Ernest Becker’s key insight in his last book, Denial of Death. He acknowledges that no one can reject physical death but there is another death that can be denied: That which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. This is what George Kohlrieser has in mind when observing in the Preface, “I discovered that my learnings as a hostage negotiator could be applied successfully to situations of powerlessness and entrapment in which a person is a metaphorical hostage rather than a physical hostage. In fact, such potential `hostage’ situations occur everyday professionally and personally. My goal in this book is to offer what I learned as a hostage negotiator for you to apply in situations in which you may be a metaphorical `hostage’ in your life.”

Although there is a reference to “leaders” in this book’s subtitle, in fact anyone can become a “hostage,” either to another person (or persons) or to a self-defeating illusion or delusion. As Kohlrieser confides, he endured what had become a “negative ordeal” years ago while preparing to become a Roman Catholic priest. “I had, in fact, become what I now understand to be a hostage to my own conflicting emotions about being in the seminary.” Fortunately, his confidant (“a wise extraordinary man” named Father Edward Mariarz) reassured him, “George, you are free. You have the right to choose to do whatever you want.” That was a defining moment in his life.

As he now realizes, that in becoming a hostage to his emotions, “I had stayed in that situation long after it was time to leave. I was hostage to my grief about leaving what was familiar and all the benefits and security it brought. I also felt sad about not meeting the expectations of myself and others.” Most of those who read this book can identify with that situation. We share young Kohlhieser’s need to resolve conflict and he shares with us, in this book, all that he has learned about the skills and techniques that help resolving conflict, “even though most people naturally fear dealing with conflict….Understanding how our emotions work is a vital aspect of self-awareness that enables us never to be a metaphorical hostage.”

Kohlrieser makes brilliant use of several reader-friendly devices that will facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key material later. For example, dozens of checklists of key points, “Figures” (e.g. 2.1 “The Mind’s Eye Determines Results,” 4.1 “Secure Base and Self-Esteem,” 6.1 “Authentically Engaged Transactions,” and 8.1 “Five Stages of Emotion”), and two devices at the conclusion of all nine chapters, “SUMMARY” and “Key Points to Remember.” He also makes generous use of real-world examples — stories involving “real people facing real-life situations” — that anchor his key points in a human context. “With the exception of the news stories, names have been changed to protect people’s identities.” Fair enough.

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the range of subjects covered during the course of the book’s narrative:

o Bonding Is the Antidote (Pages 11-14)
o Seeing with the Mind’s Eye (32-35)
o The Eight Stages of Grief (49-56)
o The Seven Manifestations of Broken Bonding (56-63)
o The Mother Figure as Secure Base, and The Father Figure as Secure Base (80-84)
o Styles of Attachment and Bonding (91-96)
o The Nature and Roots of Conflict (102-105)
o The Dynamics of a Healthy Relationship (112-115)
o Resolving Conflict (116-119)
o Blocks to Dialogue, Tools to Remove Blocks to Dialogue, and Principles of Dialogue (132-140)
o The Art of Listening (140-142)
o Ten Steps in the Negotiation Process (152-155)
o Five Stages of Emotion (180-184)
o The Value of Emotional Intelligence in Business (192-193)
o Helping Ourselves and Others in Business (213-217)

I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that George Kohlrieser provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how effective use of specific skills and techniques that can indeed help them resolve conflict and thereby avoid becoming or remaining hostage to whatever limits their personal growth and professional development.

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