Hostage at the Table
spring2015 hostageby Georges Kohlrieser1

This is a book that many executive coaches and business leaders probably know, written in 2006 by Georges Kohlrieser. Kohlrieser worked as hostage negotiator early in his career, and brought the concept to business leadership. He is psychologist and currently professor at IMD Lausanne on organization and leadership.

‘The book is very well structured, very clear and gives many examples, ‘comments AHEAD’s Nicolas Goffaux. ‘In my view, it offers you powerful ideas on how to be more efficient and happier with others and importantly, with yourself.’

In summarising, he explains that leaders are often hostage to the people around them or by their own emotions and values. Kohlrieser’s proposition is to help these leaders to find the influencing skills to develop their teams and organisation. Even in danger (the author applied it in a real hostage situation), one can share with the hostage taker several benefits of a better situation for him, and this little bond is the first step to success.

Put the fish on the table
Georges Kohlrieser explains that the secret of good people leadership is not to tell your team what they have to do but to influence them to make the right choices, to be fully engaged in the team. This works by talking less, listening more, asking the right questions, sharing a vision and putting the fish on the table.

‘Put the fish on the table was probably my favourite sentence in this book,’ Nicolas goes on.
In other words, dare to speak of the issue, rather than avoid it. Yet speak with respect to people. The ability to listen to people, to assert, to finally inspire people towards a common goal. This is key to leaders and to all of us.

Feeling powerless
Of course there are times when we feel blocked with a feeling of powerless (I cannot change anything) and fatalism. For that situation, the author explains that the solution always starts by creating bonds to people and to objectives.

The author advises that we always have choice, more than we think. We need to decode our own reactions, emotions and be aware of them. As I am responsible for my life, and for my objectives (no matter how small), I can act as a free man/woman.

Secure bases
In Hostage at the Table, Georges Kohlrieser explains that a good leader is able to handle his inner life, to ignore the parasites, to cultivate a positive mindset, and to visualise success. But leaders need to have secure bases to help us: whether family, friends, colleagues, objects, perspectives. These secure bases will push us to think and see more positively. Never hesitate to ask for help. Resilience and self esteem are also very useful, but also learning from experience and looking for new challenges. Who dares wins.

Managing conflict
Conflict management is important : if you refuse to face a conflict, you become hostage to your own passivity. Often the existence of a conflict comes from a broken bond. So when that happens, what can we do ?

Firstly see the conflict as something positive, as an opportunity for change. There are rules in an efficient conflict management and negotiations:
  • never make enemies
  • separate people from the problem
  • help one to understand what the other one needs
  • explain your own needs
  • reject aggression
  • start a dialogue, find common objectives and transform them into action plans.

Dialogue here means more than a conversation : it means the true will to understand each other and to have an authentic exchange. It requires active listening, honesty, and using more yes and than yes but, plus sharing experiences. Sometimes just starting your day with a genuine good morning and a smile can make all the difference.

In a negotiation, you can say NO, but you must maintain the bond with an attitude based on respect, patience and reciprocity. Often a negotation on the principle of the agreement could be more efficient than on the position.

‘I also like his tips to reach fulfillment : to have clear and SMART objectives, to accept saying goodbye to some aspects of the past (important to live freely) and to try new things. Aim for what is acceptable rather than what is optimal,’ adds Nicolas.

‘To be happy is a choice. I wish you to be free and no longer an hostage,’ concludes Nicolas Goffaux.’ I warmly recommend reading Hostage at the Table. This is a great book for life.’


1The Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance (J-B Warren Bennis Series) Hardcover – John Wiley & Sons; 1 edition (20 Jun. 2006) by Joe W. Forehand (foreword), George Kohlrieser (author)