When a psychotherapist claims to be 95% effective, he gets my attention. When I further learn that that ‘effectiveness’ is not merely an increase in scores on some survey or ‘paper and pencil’ measure but in lives saved, I read further. George Kohlrieser is 95% effective in getting hostage takers to release their hostages alive. He does this through ‘counseling’ the hostage taker to change! This is truly short-term, strategic therapy in its most effective form. In his book, Hostage at the Table, he distills out the basic, powerful techniques he has developed as a hostage negotiator and presents them for us all to use. Although the cover mentions the book is for leaders and managers, I would, if I could, require every counselor to read it.
Although some of what he presents is not new and is backed up with much research, the ways he conceptualizes them are so precise and suggestive they can be powerfully used in any counseling situation. In this blog I would like to highlight two of these.
The essence of being a ‘hostage’ which a hostage negotiator has to confront is feeling of powerlessness on the part of the hostages. If those who are taken hostages accept their powerless, their situation is indeed grave. They feel they have no way of changing the powers that are controlling their future. We can be taken hostage by any number of situations—being cut off in traffic, being criticized by ones boss, a fight with a friend, some idea or belief, etc. Anything that ‘holds on to us’ beyond the event itself. I would guess that almost everyone who comes in for counseling feels like a ‘hostage’ to something. So they are, in a sense, looking for a hostage negotiator. The author offers some very practical steps to get the hostage taker to let hostages go—steps that could also be very effective in a counseling situation.
In fact I think psychologists who develop a new theory often become hostages to their theory—the theory begins to control them (Freud, Jung, Adler, Rogers, Beck, etc.) One exception is Milton Erickson. He never developed a formal theory—thereby frustrating his followers ever since.
Now the first thing a hostage negotiator must do is to create a secure base with the hostage taker. Everyone must have at least one ‘secure base’ to feel stable. This is a military term which identifies that area which an army must set up in a foreign country to be a secure camp which soldiers operate out of. They must feel safe and protected. Secure bases give confidence and resiliency to the rest of a person’s activities.
Secure bases come in many forms—often other people such as parents, spouses, teachers, coaches, friends, colleagues, etc. But they also can be ideals, ‘countries, pets, goals, beliefs, or religion.’ Each person usually has more than one. They are always temporary—just like the army camp. When one loses a secure base he or she must acknowledge that loss, grieve the loss and let go; then one must look for a new secure base. The secure base can last from a couple of minutes to years. Hostage negotiators sometimes try to establish a secure base for 5 minutes before.
I think the problems of almost any client could be conceptualized as having lost or never having developed a secure base. One client I had lost his father, his spouse left him for another man taking his children with him, lost his new job after moving 1000 miles for it all within 2 months. He was deeply depressed thinking something was seriously wrong with him. He had lost every secure base he had. Times of transition can be understood as moving from one set of secure bases to another. Teenagers often experience this with great distress especially if their parents are not response to the changes. “Going postal” is a good example; marriage is another. Kohlrieser follows up this metaphor with specific counseling techniques extrapolated from his experiences with hostage takers. We as counselors could effectively formulate our treatment goals and plans using this metaphor.
Since I am most interested in the religious and spiritual aspects of counseling, the idea of a secure base seems to be a natural concept. For many individuals their religion provides one of their secure bases. In fact it is so natural for many individuals that they may not be aware of its presence unless it is causing them a problem.
Different religions offer different opportunities for secure bases. Possible secure bases: Muslims, prayer 5 times a day, Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca; Buddhists, chanting, religious services; Jews, Sabbath rituals and family gatherings; Christians, Sunday morning services and seasonal celebrations of Christmas and Easter; etc. I believe rituals provide more stable secure bases than any other aspect of religion although religious authorities, writings, beliefs, artifacts, songs, etc. offer such grounding.
Individual spirituality offers limitless possibilities for a secure base for individuals: prayer, beliefs, diet, chanting, etc.
Finally, I would encourage every counselor to read this book—I found many practical, new ideas in every chapter. After securing a secure base (=making connection, establishing empathy, etc.), the next steps are quite clear and described clearly in Hostage at the Table—with a 95% success rate!
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.