IMD International

Expert hostage negotiation tactics for dealing with your family this holiday season


26 November 2015

The media seems to believe that Thanksgiving this year will be a particularly contentious affair, in which arguments about Donald Trump, terrorism, and immigration will rip your family to shreds and leave everyone stuffed with turkey but filled with misery.

This assumes that you cannot converse calmly with loved ones who hold different political views, or that there is nothing else—sports, the weather—to talk about over dinner.

If this is the case, here is some advice from someone who deals in properly stressful situations: we spoke with a seasoned hostage negotiator for tips on surviving this potentially treacherous holiday season.

His advice is simple: be curious.

“When you have someone willing to learn and listen, you can have a good dialog, and you can get to a deeper truth,” says George Kohlrieser, an expert negotiator who has himself been held hostage four times. He is now a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the IMD business school in Switzerland and, fittingly, wrote a book called Hostage at the Table.

Indeed, Kohlrieser sees some parallels between hostage negotiations and Thanksgiving, where expectations are high and everyone comes loaded with a lifetime of grievances. “You can be a psychological hostage,” he tells Quartz. “No one has to put a weapon to your head for you to feel hostage to a situation.”

The key is to refuse to let that happen. Be prepared with the right mindset—“I will not let anyone take me hostage”—and a game plan.

First, walk in the door with a humble attitude. “Arguments are so often about arrogance,” Kohlrieser says. “A lot of people are not interested in learning. They just want to be right.”

Aunt Mary may think all immigrants are criminals, or believe that the best way to get rid of ISIL is to blow up Bermuda. You may disagree with her passionately. But take a breath and follow these tips:

  • Establish a bond by listening to understand, rather than listening to respond
  • Consider the law of reciprocity: What you give you get back.
  • Keep talking, but make concessions
  • Don’t attack
  • Refuse to be defensive

It helps to have a sentence or two that you have prepared and practiced if things get dicey. Here’s what Kohlrieser suggests:
Yes, Uncle George, I hear that you think all Muslims are terrorists. That is a view I don’t share. But what I would really like to do is to get back to sharing time with my delightful family who I so rarely see.

If that doesn’t work, fall back on humility and focus on your common goal (in this case, a pleasant meal).

“Don’t ever defend yourself. Ask a question,” Kohlrieser suggests. “Don’t feel rejected. If you are rejected—come back with a way to recover. Don’t criticize. No criticism, zero.”

Kohlrieser’s family is enormous and filled with both Tea Party members and far-left adherents. They talk politics and disagree passionately. Sometimes, he has to deploy his expert mediation skills to smooth things over. But everyone leaves happy. In fact, it’s his favorite day of the year.

So if you have no interest in anyone else’s views unless they match your own, you may be out of luck. For everyone else, take Uncle George’s advice and be curious and willing to learn a little.

More than 95% of hostage situations are resolved peacefully. Can the same be said about your Thanksgiving dinner?

This article was written by Jenny Anderson and was originally published in Quartz.

George Kohlrieser is Director of High Performance Leadership (HPL) a program for experienced executives who want to achieve the next level of effectiveness in leading individuals, teams and large groups to their highest level of sustained performance.

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