Negotiation in practice: The Columbo technique

If you used to follow the television adventures of Kojak, if you enjoy a suspenseful thriller or captivating crime drama, and if you patiently wait for the latest episodes of "Mindhunter" or "True Detective", you probably associate the words ‘cop’ and ‘detective’ with a relentless tough guy who rarely smiles, who is eloquently silent, who answers questions with one word - someone who doesn’t yield until he gets his way. People who negotiate often imitate this pattern: they flex their muscles from the get-go, they tend to be brusque, arrogant, and combative, believing that only by showing strength and then reconciling with their rival can they achieve their goal. Are they sure that’s the most effective negotiation strategy?

If I asked you to write down your first association when you hear the word ‘negotiation,’ what would it be? Don’t hesitate, just answer: ‘I associate negotiation with...’ During training sessions, most people I ask to complete this simple task answer, ‘a struggle,’ ‘a duel,’ a ‘verbal battle,’ and even ‘boxing’... On the other hand, I rarely hear associations such as ‘compromise’, ‘agreement’ or ‘achieving a goal’.

After many years of working on this topic, I’ve got the impression that negotiations are difficult, emotional conversations - first and foremost about price - which are like a tug-of-war: everyone pulls their own way. That is, until one side falls. Our negative attitude towards negotiation translates into our opinion of those we’re negotiating with: from the beginning - often unconsciously - we treat them as rivals or enemies, people we have to prove wrong at all costs, people we have to convince that we’re right. In other words, we have to beat them. If the other party approaches the conversation in an equally feisty mood, you can quickly find yourself in a so-called ‘hard negotiation’: everyone wants to prove that they’re like Brad Pitt in the role of Detective Mills, who would sooner die than give up. The atmosphere quickly becomes tense and emotionally charged. If you don’t manage to stop that from happening (for example, by throwing in joke to ease the tension or suggesting you take a coffee break), it’ll be easy to predict how the negotiations wind up.

Emotions vs. reason

On-screen detectives keep their emotions in check, and while watching from the comfort of your living room or local cinema, you probably think you’d behave the same way in their place. However, in reality, negotiations aren’t like the movies. In my career, I’ve participated in hundreds of negotiations, and I’ve often seen even the most experienced negotiators let themselves be carried away by emotions. I remember one transaction that fell apart over $500 dollars - even though there was more than half a million on the table - because one party let their emotions get the better of them. Ultimately, instead of toasting a deal well done, the parties parted ways with a bad taste in their mouths.

Emotions obscure rational thinking and make us lose the benefit we originally wanted to achieve from the conversation. Instead of thinking about the business at hand, we give in to instincts we’d prefer not to have: a desire to win at all costs, and even a desire for revenge... In the duel of emotions vs. reason, emotions usually come out on top.

If you haven’t yet participated in such negotiations, think about a conversation with your partner: when your blood started to boil, were you able to admit it and let go, or did it turn into a fight? It often takes us hours - or even days - to admit our mistakes and recognise that our partners have valid arguments, too.

To avoid this situation during negotiations, you need to change the way you think about negotiations, abandon the ‘hard-nosed cop’ mentality, and work out a winning strategy that won’t antagonize your negotiation partners. This is where we can employ a negotiation technique that is both inconspicuous and extremely effective - the Columbo technique.

A buffoon in a rumpled raincoat

When the first episode of the series Columbo was broadcast in 1968, no one expected the series to be an absolute hit that would remain in production and syndication for the next 35 years and which would win fans all over the world. Instead of a typical hard-nosed cop with a penetrating gaze, audiences were treated to an ever-distracted detective with a glass eye, who not only wore an unfashionable, permanently crumpled raincoat, but who also slouched and dragged his foot ... Unlike his big-screen competitors of the day, such as Simon Templar, Columbo used a soft yet extremely tricky method of speaking with alleged perpetrators: he was polite and cheerful, constantly complimentary, and aroused sympathy bordering on indulgence. He flattered suspects and congratulated them on their fortune and prosperity, thereby strengthening their sense of superiority. That’s how - with his apparent absent-mindedness, frivolous appearance, and endless chit-chat - he put suspects at ease, drawing them into solving crimes for him. Suddenly, those who seemed to have committed the perfect crime would reveal their own cards ... Without threats, without violence, and without long and arduous interrogations, they fell into Columbo’s trap. They agreed to all his conditions, without even realising they had done so.



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