March 30, 2020Preventive Healthcare

Secure base in the time of change

Interview with:

George Kohlrieser, PhD

Psychologist, hostage negotiator, Professor of Leadership at IMD in Laussane.

George Kohlrieser is a psychologist, hostage negotiator, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, one of the most prestigious business schools in the world and author of a number of books of which Hostage at the Table is a bestseller. It talks about times of transition and how to stay a great leader in times of change. George, thank you very much for joining us today.

Dr. Kohlrieser: It's a pleasure to be here, Joanna.

I would like to start with a question that you cover a lot both in your seminars and your books. Can you explain what a secure base is?

Dr. Kohlrieser: A secure base is any kind of anchor, including people, places, goals, events, memories, that give you a sense of protection, that make you feel good, and in which you feel comforted. And that as a result, it inspires you to be able to take chances, risks, seek change, and learn. The brain is fundamentally negative, looking to avoid danger for survival. And some people, can find a threat all the time. So a secure base is so central because it shuts down the brain's tendency to overreact to threat and then you are able to experience adventures, take risks, explore, seek change. People who have too much anxiety, worry. It reflects a lack of a secure base because it doesn't give them that inner protection, which they then have to establish for themselves. It's essential to health.

It's essential to health. So what connection do you see and how does it directly influence our health?

Dr. Kohlrieser: We know that high stress affects people negatively and makes them sick. Not only through social discord, but physically as well. So when you feel safe, it's called psychological safety. Then something positive happens inside you giving you an optimistic mindset and that reaches all parts of the cells, all parts of the social being you to then feel engaged and positive. When you are filled with worry, what happens is you shut down, become defensive and see too many things as a threat. People can find a threat anywhere they want to. Now, what is a real threat and what is not? The coronavirus, for example, right now is a true threat. We cannot deny that. However, we cannot let that destroy us or make us overly negative, filled with fear. Because then there are so many negative consequences.

Secure base is so central because it shuts down the brain's tendency to overreact to threat and then you are able to experience adventures, take risks, explore, seek change.

Exactly. And this is so sad and I think it's the first time in the history of humankind that we have one common enemy that we are all trying to find a way to understand and how to protect ourselves from it.

Dr. Kohlrieser: So our secure bases are the experts who are guiding us, we have to be able to trust them, even if we don't know them. We see them on television, read about them, hear about them. They are our secure bases. Then come the political leaders and the others who are influencing us. And then it comes back to your own family, your social system around you. Do you feel safe in that social system? And I take it in Poland, you're locked down as well as we are here in Switzerland. And it's good advice to be in your home and control the threat that's outside because it is real, but there's no reason not to feel safe in your own home or your environment. You shouldn't stop living, you shouldn't stop feeling joy.

This is why we also talk a lot about the immune system and that now is the time to focus very much on our health, well-being and immunity so that it can become our secure base, because this is the only thing we can do for ourselves today.

Dr. Kohlrieser: Exactly. I use the idea of a hostage metaphor. A hostage feels powerless when they are held by a hostage taker. One thing we know is how to get them out. There is a 95 percent success rate by using hostage negotiation techniques. A psychological hostage is even worse because you feel that powerlessness and have the fight-flight effect activated because of that. Now, you are an expert on epigenetics. We know that the environment around you, as well as mindset, can alter the functioning of the DNA, and the genes, turning them on or off to protect or open up the possibility of illnesses and so on. So what we have to do is protect ourselves to ultimately be our own secure base. But let me emphasize not until we have an external secure base that inspires us either from the past, or from our present.

We know that the environment around you, as well as mindset, can alter the functioning of the DNA, and the genes, turning them on or off to protect or open up the possibility of illnesses and so on.

This is very interesting. These are unprecedented times where everything around has changed. Our way of working, the way we communicate and spend time with our family has changed. It is an extreme time of change. How can we deal with fear and the unknown in the best possible way?

Dr. Kohlrieser: I'm often asked, "How can I be authentic and positive when I'm filled with anxiety and fear." Well, fear and anxiety are going to be there. However, you can focus, if you can see beyond it. I remember the story of a little six-year-old girl who was fishing with her father in a boat. And suddenly looking at the sky, she turns to her father and says, “daddy, daddy, I can see further than my eyes can see.” She was using her mind's eye to see something beyond the present and we all have to be able to see beyond what our eyes can see. Because you watch television, you read, you see the threats, which are real, we cannot deny them. So number one is to come back and see with the mind's eye, the future, the opportunity of where this is all going to go and that is built around learning. What are we learning, as an individual, as a family, as a community, as a culture, as a society? This has been predicted by many people that a pandemic was going to come. And we are obviously not prepared, both from a mental health point of view, but especially from the physical medical perspective. It has taken too many political leaders by surprise, and a long time to get out of denial. So number one is come back to the present, and feel a way to be safe. Even if someone has a gun to your head you don't have to feel like the hostage. To be a hostage means to be powerless. We do not have to feel powerless about this virus. And too many people are feeling like a hostage to this virus, and that is not correct. And that's a mindset problem. And then it's a behavior problem and what drives that in most cases, is the fact that this is activating so much grief. There is so much denied grief because we're losing things that we took for granted, to go to a grocery store and walk freely up and down the aisles and find what we needed to not be worried about touching the cart, to not be concerned about pushing the buttons on the credit card machine, to have to stay two meters away from people. Think of the losses to your regular routine, normal life, we are in an active state of grief. And for some people, that means they're angry, others are sad, some are scared, some are a combination of all.

To be a hostage means to be powerless. We do not have to feel powerless about this virus.

This is one of the aspects you mentioned in your book as well and it's very, powerful. Next to food, oxygen and water, bonding is our greatest source of energy and especially now, it's much more difficult for us to bond when we are not allowed to touch people to get out. This brings down our immune system because we need this bonding. How can we deal with that?

Dr. Kohlrieser: It is very good to bring up the bonding. I’m not sure how I’ve overlooked that. Bonding is a core element because the human-being is a social being. And the brain is a social structure. So we need to be able to connect. Now there are several factors and one is that social distancing does not have to stop bonding. It can limit the physical touch but you're able to have a psychological connection, psychological bonding, so it is a mindset because you can be in the same room with someone holding their hand and not be bonded. Or you can look at someone across the room and you can feel psychological bonding. Now, how does this connect to the immune system? When the mind becomes too defensive, it affects the way the body defends itself. There is a line of research that says that we need a certain amount of defensiveness, the paranoid may survive up to a point until they become paranoid. We all have to be able to handle and see threats, to be a little bit paranoid, but not to the point that it changes our state into a negative one. This is the idea behind bonding. Bonding inspires closeness and brings us close, although there's such a thing as negative bonding, it happens with violence and hatred, etc. But what we have to understand is we need connection. And in this time of social distancing, it's amazing what people are coming up with standing outside of the window looking at their grandmother and singing a song. Or setting up a Skype call to have a meal with your family far away. I feel very, very sad for the grandparents, the elderly, or people who are maybe not even fully aware of what's going on outside that nursing home. And here we find ways to be able to connect with them with technology. We're seeing some of the beauty of the possibilities of psychological bonding with technology, we have to see all these as opportunities. But we also have to look for opportunities. And mostly, we have to come back to a positive state. If your listeners have lost their sense of joy, their sense of adventure, then they have to go through the grief they have and change their mindset and behavior. To come back to that sense of adventure, that sense of joy.

Bonding is a core element because the human-being is a social being.

This is so well said. So we are all stuck at home, all working from home. Some people are more pleased with that than others. How can someone be a great leader when working from home?

Dr. Kohlrieser: First of all, as a leader, you have to be able to come back and manage your own schedule in a different way. Set goals and be able to self-lead. Then you have to be able to lead others. If you are a manager and your team is working from home, you can do this with Zoom, Skype or virtual calls - individual telephone calls to keep them inspired. And you do this not by being coercive or authoritarian but through questions. You start bonding through empathy. How are you doing, how you're feeling? What is it you need? What are your projects? Would you like me to know, questions, questions, questions, as a way to engage your employees and those around you or colleagues or when you're having meetings, to get the brainstorming and get the mind working in a positive direction.

I think it's an interesting time, we are locked down at home, which theoretically limits our freedom on one side, but on the other side, allowing us to regroup and rethink our relationships and our priorities in life. And I think slowly, our future becomes our secure base, because exactly like the little girl, I can see beyond what my eyes can see, the future is a secure base.

Dr. Kohlrieser: That's a beautiful expression, Joanna. And also to add to that, the idea that you're learning, learning, learning. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, a physical hostage, but after a short time, he didn't feel like a hostage. He was always learning. He said, what was I doing? Learning, learning, learning and when he came out, he wasn't filled with resentment. And I see too many people who are starting to get irritable and negative, wanting things to be different, too fast. And so we have to accept what's happening, follow the guidelines of the experts. They're studying this data. And as you know, what has happened in Italy, it's just horrific and what's about to happen in some parts of the United States are predicted to be horrific also. So we have to be able to trust certain secure bases to guide us wherever we're going. But ultimately, we become our own secure base, but never, never without external secure bases. This does not just mean people. It can mean a good book, a memory, an object, it can be anything that gives you a sense of protection, a good feeling of inspiration, and energy. And then that produces the possibility to learn, explore and drive change. This has to be a time for us to make a major change that is good in the right way. We don't naturally resist change, we resist the pain of change, the fear of change, the fear of the unknown, but we can see the opportunity of what change can bring. And so people in everyday life will choose opportunities. Not the majority of people the research shows, but a good number. But we are born not to just seek safety. We're born to enjoy life, adventure.

We have to be able to trust secure bases to guide us wherever we're going.

Thank you. And I heard an expression, that after this time has passed, we will have a new type of leadership as well. This will also be a time that will show us who is a good leader and who is not. And it might also be very helpful to sometimes be in a hostage situation, to combat this negative time through a positive transition.

Dr. Kohlrieser: Oh, you're absolutely right. We are seeing some great examples of leadership, but very few. We are also seeing horrendous examples of poor leadership, failed leadership, leadership that focuses on the self and not looking at how to help people at a broader level. We are going to come out of this evaluating who really was a good leader or not and that means being able to create a vision and have the courage to act on it. That includes listening to experts and putting the vision into some kind of action. Sometimes that requires courage. Real courage to act. And we see too many examples of leadership that were too late. The warnings were there, but politicians tended to ignore them. And I guess that part of it is to look at the failed political leadership, but also in organizations to see how leaders can stand up now and learn and be able to lead with character.

Thank you very much for taking the time today. It has been a great insight into our current situation and thank you for all the advice.

Dr. Kohlrieser: There are going to be a few videos coming out from IMD covering subjects such as how not to be a hostage and in a secure base, etc. Those will be available on social media through IMD. Joanna It's good to see you. Bunker down there taking good care of yourself.

Highlights

  • A secure base is any kind of anchor, including people, places, goals, events, memories, that give you a sense of protection that make you feel good, and in which you feel comforted. It inspires you to be able to take chances, risks, seek change, and learn.
  • Even if someone has a gun to your head you don't have to feel like the hostage. To be a hostage means to be powerless. Many people are feeling like a hostage to this virus, and that is not correct. That's a mindset problem.
  • We know that the environment around you, as well as mindset, can alter the functioning of the DNA, and the genes, turning them on or off to protect or open up the possibility of illnesses.
  • We don't naturally resist change, we resist the pain of change, the fear of change, the fear of the unknown, but we can see the opportunity of what change can bring

Interview by

Joanna Bensz

Founder and CEO of the International Institute of Longevity.