Acting Lost In Negotiations 9The Columbo Technique)

Columbo (with his shabby raincoat, his cigar, and his generally ‘lost’ demeanor) was a hero of mine growing up (him and Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote). He seemed to fumble his way through things and his genuinely curious and interested personality always seemed to get the better of him. He claimed confusion on just about everything and by doing so got the other party (the suspects he was investigating) to reveal pretty much everything in return. Just one more thing…

What was brilliant about Columbo was the way that he got others to help him. By displaying this character of a fumbling idiot, the suspects generally got frustrated or took pity on poor old Columbo and ‘helped’ him to understand what he was questioning and curious about. You see, by acting this way, Columbo was able to lull the suspect into a false sense of security and completely diffuse any tension or conflict. That diffusion of conflict and tension then led to the suspect feeling comfortable that such an idiot would never catch them and ultimately they’d reveal so much that they’d end up incriminating themselves.

He played to their egos. The perceived feeling of dominance and superior intelligence is something that many of us can’t resist. And so naturally we leap at the opportunity to show how smart we are. And yet by doing so, we fall into the trap of arrogance and reveal far too much about our competitive position. You see this tactic used by a lot of talented sales and procurement people, except it’s not an act to trap a murder suspect, but an act to extract information to close a better deal. Some negotiators are so good at it that you don’t even know it’s happening until it’s too late.

The two classic lines (and there are tons of variations of these) you hear all the time are:

Salesperson to procurement person on trying to extract competitive information:
“Oh?!? I never realized it was like that. Tell me more about that, I have a very limited understanding of it and don’t understand it nearly as well as you and would like to learn more.”

Procurement person to salesperson on price increases/product failures/service changes etc.
“Interesting, so you say this happens all the time? Very interesting, maybe you could walk me through that a bit more. I’m not as well versed as I should be in this. What causes that sort of thing?”

But there’s a problem. Writing about this won’t do it justice because how you deliver this technique is almost more important than what words you use. So I defer to the master, Columbo.

Here’s what I want you to do. As a fun little exercise, go onto YouTube and check out some videos on Columbo and watch Peter Falk’s flawless delivery of this curious/lost investigative style. Specifically watch and listen to the following:

  • Listen to the inflection that he gives questions (like he’s generally lost and confused).
  • Listen to his slow delivery of a question when he want to emphasize lack of understanding.
  • But most importantly, look at how masterfully he uses silence to get the other party talking and the body language (scratching his head, looking down shaking his head, rubbing the back of his neck as though it’s in pain thinking about it) that he uses to show general confusion to draw suspect into the discussion.

This skill is one of the most fun skills to learn, because it almost feels like you’re playing Columbo the detective. I absolutely love using this in negotiations. The amount of information you can extract in one sitting just by acting confused and lost (when you deliver it well) is actually shocking. It’s almost as people fall over themselves to help you understand how to get more value out of a negotiation by showing their superiority on the subject matter.