Hostage Negotiation – Lessons for Selling, Customer Service and Business Relationships

Pierre Cerulus steered me to Hostage at the Table by George Kohlrieser, now a professor at IMD, and a former hostage negotiator. The metaphor of hostage taking is one of the best I’ve seen for thinking about leadership and personal development.

Are you a hostage? Or a hostage taker? Or—both at once?

Here’s a remarkable statistic—professional hostage-negotiators have a 95% success rate. 95% of the time they persuade potential killers drenched in adrenaline to change their minds.

Compare that with your success rate in closing sales or persuading clients. (And they’re not even homicidal. Yeah yeah I know).

Kohlrieser’s most compelling vignettes, however, are about amateurs. The lady in Atlanta who talked down her abductor. The grandmother who, with her 9-year-old granddaughter at her side, talked down the blood-drenched escaped convict who had killed a neighboring family minutes before entering her bedroom at 3AM.

The “trick” is to make a human connection with the hostage-taker. Simple to say, hard to do. This is one of the better books I’ve seen on just how to do it. For more—read the book.

Of course, we’re not likely to be in a hostage situation. But metaphorically—we are all the time.

Hostage-taking is an alienated act of desperation—a cry for help. The failing of most hostages, and most amateur hostage-negotiators, is that they cannot see past the threat to themselves, to see the desperation in the other.

Apply that to work. The angry customer. The resentful co-worker. The “gotcha” performance review. All are driven by states of mind others—which we choose to experience as personal attacks on ourselves.

We let them hold us hostage. But there are no guns here. Our response is within our control. It is not that they are attacking us—it is that we are feeling attacked. We own our own oppression.

In Mel Brooks’ hilarious Blazing Saddles, the sheriff faces a hostile mob. He realizes he can escape by taking a hostage—himself. Pointing the gun at his own temple, he shouts, “No one moves—or I’ll blow his head off,” then slowly backs out of the room.

That’s what we do, when we allow ourselves to be hijacked by the emotions of others; when we react to those emotions, rather than acting from our own true selves. We become hostage-taker, with ourselves as hostage; a double-bind, with no win-win possible.

But the angrier or more distressed someone is, the more they want to find someone to relieve them of that anger of distress – someone to care. Passion gives you something to work with.

The answer is the same in the metaphor as in life. See the person beneath the fear—first the customer/co-worker, then ourselves. Connect with that real person. Engage in a true dialogue.

It is the same principle that governs the creation of trust, and it disproves an old myth about trust—that trust takes time.

It doesn’t. It takes connection.