Hostage at the Table

How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance
By George Kohlrieser Joe W. Forehand

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7879-8384-5

Chapter One

Are You Being Held Hostage Without Knowing It?

A nine-year-old girl was spending time with her grandparents in Kansas. The grandfather was away, so she was sleeping with her grandmother. Suddenly, she awoke in the middle of the night to see her elderly grandmother sitting up in bed and a man standing over her, dripping with rain and with a wooden club in his hand, ready to strike. The little girl felt a scream rising, and then her grandmother touched her hand and she felt a flood of calm wash over her. The grandmother said to the man, "I am glad you found our house. You've come to the right place. You are welcome here. It is a bad night to be out. You are cold, wet, and hungry. Take the firewood you have there and go stir up the kitchen stove. Let me put some clothes on, and I will find you some dry clothes, fix you a good hot meal, and make a place for you to sleep behind the stove where it is good and warm." She said no more but waited calmly. After a long pause, the man lowered the club and said, "I won't hurt you." She then met him in the kitchen and cooked him a meal, gave him the dry clothes, and made a bed up for him behind the stove. The grandmother then went back to her bed and she and her granddaughter went back to sleep. They awoke in the morning to find the man gone.

At about 10 A.M., the police arrived with a canine unit that had followed the man's scent to the house. They were shocked to find the grandmother and granddaughter still alive. The man was a psychopathic murderer who had escaped from prison the night before and had brutally slaughtered the family who were the nearest neighbors.

This amazing grandmother had created so much emotional bonding with the intruder that he could not kill her. She had treated him with a kindness and respect that had disarmed him both literally and figuratively. The fact is people do not kill people; they kill things or objects.

This remarkable story is summarized from Joseph Chilton Pearce's book Magical Child. Think for a moment. What would you do if you were taken hostage? Imagine that you suddenly found yourself in a hostage situation where you are held with a gun against your will. How would you react? How would you feel? What would you do? What would you say to the hostage taker(s)?

Fortunately, the likelihood of physically being taken hostage is slim. However, all of us can be taken hostage metaphorically-that is, made to feel threatened, manipulated, and victimized-every day by bosses, colleagues, customers, family members, or virtually anyone with whom we interact. We can also become hostage to events or circumstances happening in our lives. We can even become hostages to ourselves, our own mind-sets, our emotions, and our habits.

Consider the following everyday situations in which people allow themselves to be taken hostage.

While you are in your car on your way to work, another driver cuts you off. Immediately you feel angry and hostile toward the "jerk" in the other vehicle. This feeling can linger, keeping you in a negative frame of mind for a good part of the day.

Your boss criticizes you, and in response, you defend yourself or even attack her, causing the situation to escalate. The conflict stays in your mind, resulting in a feeling of distrust between the two of you.

You are going on a business trip and, because you are leaving, your child cries. You then rush out the door feeling guilty and telling yourself that you are a terrible parent. For the remainder of the trip, you feel down and even depressed.

You say hello to a colleague as you walk by, but he does not respond. You begin complaining to others about your colleague, your work, and the company. Soon you start thinking, "Nobody cares about people around here."

People enraged by another person, a traffic jam, missing luggage, a lost job, a delayed flight, or even the weather-any set of external circumstances beyond their control-are allowing themselves to be taken hostage. Without realizing it, how many of us let an external event control our lives? Have you ever been upset because your holiday was ruined by bad weather? Have you ever been put into a bad mood by someone else's negative attitude? Have you ever said to someone, "You make me so upset!" If so, you have allowed yourself to be taken hostage.

Many business people I work with have high intellectual intelligence (IQ) and yet have an underdeveloped sense of emotional intelligence (EQ). They concern themselves with facts, figures, and details at the expense of the emotions, feelings, and motivations of their coworkers. Even the terms hard facts and the soft stuff used in business imply that data are somehow real and strong while emotions are weak and less important. I have seen examples of over-domineering leaders inflicting untold pain and misery on employees through their need to control both people and situations. Employees can also take their bosses hostage, minimizing success and making work a misery.

The competitive nature of many business leaders can lead to situations in which they compete with their own people and other teams rather than collaborate. Issues may then be driven under the table, and conflicts can go unresolved, creating an atmosphere of discomfort, hostility, or even fear.

I meet many business leaders who misunderstand the role of power in leadership. Through an inability to face their own personal fears or concerns, they are driven to use power, control, and formal authority as the ways to manage their people. It is easy either to take others hostage or to take yourself hostage in the work environment to avoid those difficult conversations. In contrast, open and honest dialogue is necessary to build a sustainable and high-performing team environment. By identifying a common agenda, using ongoing dialogue, and creating a climate of trust, leaders can empower their people to perform at their full potential. Harnessing the competitive instincts of the individual into a drive toward a common goal can bring out the best in every team.

Authentic leaders learn to manage their competitive nature and find that, ironically, through helping others to grow and develop, they actually have greater success than if they concentrate only on themselves.

The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) definition of a hostage is "one that is manipulated by the demands of another." In the workplace, managers and/or staff can sometimes feel like hostages caught in the cross fire between the boss, the customers, and colleagues. Entrepreneurs who must, for example, fire twenty-five employees can be held hostage to their own emotions and feelings of pain at the action they know they must take. In today's business world, the global accessibility created by technology can intrude on family and personal lives to the extent that people feel hostage to their jobs, causing profound pain to others and themselves. Bosses who face employees who are not motivated or colleagues who are cynical may begin to feel their work has no value. The result is they become hostage to their staff's low motivation and the cynicism of colleagues.

While the likelihood of literally having a gun to our heads is thankfully small, the real concern is the endless number of situations in which we feel controlled, attacked, and compelled to respond. These situations can lead to an escalation and a sense of helplessness and feeling like a hostage.

The feeling of being held hostage is particularly apparent in interpersonal relationships when power, authority, or position are abused or unduly feared. On the one hand, the person in authority may misuse power while, on the other, the person subject to that authority may be unduly afraid. The question is, Why do so many people endure unhappy situations? Why do they stay in abusive relationships, either with a partner, at work, or with a friend? The reasons are complex, but, essentially, they have lost the ability to control their brain to focus on other options and to use personal power to act on those options.

Controlling Our Brain Is Essential

According to neurologist Paul MacLean, the human brain consists of three separate, though interconnected, brains. They are the reptilian brain, the limbic system (sometimes referred to as the "Paleomammalian brain"), and the neocortex.

At the most basic level, the human brain is hardwired for attack or defense. This fight-or-flight mechanism is controlled by our reptilian brain rather than by the rational part of the brain. The reptilian brain has a single focus: survival. It does not think in abstract terms or feel complex emotions. It is responsible for basic urges such as fight, flight, hunger, or fear. It is also nonverbal, operating purely at the level of visceral stimulus response. It is filled with programmed responses and will repeat the same behaviors over and over again, never learning from past mistakes. It remains active, even in deep sleep, and is the part of the brain always on the lookout for danger. It is called the reptilian brain because its basic anatomy is also found in reptiles.

The limbic system is the brain we share with other mammals, and it handles emotions and feelings. Everything in this emotional system is either agreeable or disagreeable, and survival depends on the avoidance of pain and repetition of pleasure. It appears that the limbic system is the primary seat of emotion, attention, and emotionally charged memories. It acts as a judge in relation to the neocortex, deciding whether the ideas there are good or bad. The limbic system expresses itself exclusively in the form of emotions.

The neocortex is the part of the brain that we share with the higher apes (for example, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans), although ours is more sophisticated. It is in the neocortex that we process abstract thought, words, symbols, logic, and time. MacLean refers to this brain as "the mother of invention and the father of abstract thought." Although all animals also have a neocortex, theirs are comparatively small. For example, a rat without a neocortex can act in a relatively normal way, whereas a human without a neocortex would be in a vegetative state. The neocortex is divided into left and right hemispheres, known as the left brain and the right brain. The left half of the cortex controls the right side of the body and vice versa. The left brain is more rational and verbal, while the right side of the brain is more spatial and artistic.

We can be taken hostage by the fight-or-flight mechanism in the reptilian brain or by the emotions in the limbic system. When taken hostage in this way, we succumb to what Daniel Goleman calls an "amygdala hijack." (The amygdala is a small brain structure that is part of the limbic system; see also Chapter Eight of this book.) This occurs when someone overreacts in an impulsive, instinctive way, producing a negative outcome. The neocortex can override the emotions from the other two brains and make it possible for us to choose whether or not we become hostage to automatic emotional reactions.

The phrase "going postal" refers to one kind of situation in which the limbic system takes over and leads to serious consequences. The term was coined in the United States after a postal worker who was fired returned to the post office with a gun and shot some colleagues. Today the phrase is used in general when someone goes into a rage. Such incidents of rage happen all over the world, though more typically with words and emotions rather than physical violence. When operating at the level of primitive brain responses, people can get themselves into situations in which they repeat the same pattern and experience the same problems over and over. However, by using the neocortex, people can overcome the emotions that are hijacking them and choose to give a different meaning to a circumstance rather than complying with a set pattern that repeats a negative situation. We can learn to manage emotions and to regulate their discharge. For example, when you lose your luggage at the airport, rather than yelling at the person behind the lost luggage counter, it is better to control your anger and work with that person to find your luggage.

Powerlessness Is Poison

Feeling powerless is one of the first signs of being taken hostage. Powerlessness poisons the person through feelings of helplessness or entrapment. The poison creates a cycle that provokes continuous negative interpretations of reality.

What are the words or phrases that accompany this feeling of being a hostage?

"I have no choice."

"I am trapped."

"I feel terrible."

"I just hate this."

"It's going to be another one of those days!"

Such phrases are negative self-talk that comes from our inner worlds. The dialogue we have with ourselves inside our heads can either keep us in a hostage state or help us to control it. The hostage feeling starts with the mind-set of being forced to do something we do not want to do and then continues with a negative attitude. We can understand the poison in our state of mind by listening to the words we use. The hostage mentality focuses on the negative by repeatedly telling us what we cannot do, how helpless we are, and that we will never get what we want. Interestingly, research by Robert Schrauf, an applied linguistics expert, shows that regardless of culture or age, we have far more words that express negative emotions than positive ones. In studies of thirty-seven languages, researchers found seven words related to emotions that have similar meanings in all these languages: joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame, and guilt. Of these seven words, only one is positive-joy. This research is significant because it helps us to understand the importance of finding positive ways of describing emotional experiences. It is a combination of self-talk and the management of our emotions that determines whether or not we are a hostage.

Mary confronts her manager, James, because of a strong exchange between the two of them in a meeting during which Mary felt embarrassed in front of her colleagues. Mary says, "I think you were really over the top attacking me like that." James responds, "Look, I was just telling the truth, and if you don't like it you can always leave the team."

James reveals he has been taken hostage because of his defensive-aggressive response. What is the alternative? Ask a question. Engage in a dialogue to clarify intentions. Make a concession or even an apology. For example, he could say, "Mary, help me to understand what you did not like about what I said" or "Would you like to know what my intentions were?" or "I apologize for saying you can always leave the team; that was over the top."

In this kind of situation, a true leader will work to keep the relationship intact and manage any desire to retaliate by focusing on the needs of the employee, the team, and him- or herself. Successful leaders are able to take this approach instinctively and automatically. Others lack the knowledge or the skill to deal effectively with such situations, and they can learn a great deal from hostage negotiation techniques.

As we saw with James and Mary, if someone provokes a reaction from us when we are not in control, we can easily become metaphorical hostages. This is a problem because it creates a block in the bond in the social relationship and drags us into a negative emotional reaction that can lead to a state of cynicism and detachment. Ultimately, negative states are a problem because they may interrupt social bonding and affect a person's physical health in many ways.

The goal is to maintain a sense of control through the mindsets we have and the words we use. This is how hostage negotiators succeed. The challenge is to remain both authentic and spontaneous at the same time. The following example shows how our mind-sets are critical in controlling focus and attention.


Excerpted from Hostage at the Table by George Kohlrieser Joe W. Forehand Copyright © 2006 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Excerpted by permission.
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