Columbo: Oh, just one more thing…

Guest contribution by | 15.09.2022

Clarify disagreements before they escalate into emotional conflicts. Columbo can help!

There are supposed to be people who like conflict. They enjoy rubbing up against opposing opinions, really getting into fights. I wonder, however, whether their opponents always feel the same way and still feel like the next round or a new topic afterwards?

Let’s first agree on what we mean by a conflict. We’ll come to Inspector Columbo later.

Disagreement versus conflict

It is perfectly normal for people to have different opinions about a matter, whether of a private or professional nature. In order to clarify what is right or wrong now or what just seems to be the better solution – for that you look at the facts with sufficient detail and find a solution. Professional expertise, economic understanding, mathematics, statistics and many other things help.

This is what I call a disagreement, which can usually be resolved. And if not, then you agree to disagree on the point and go your separate ways. “We agree to disagree.” A very nice formula.

It becomes difficult when one side wants to be right, regardless of the discussion, because of supposedly higher competence or a more important position in the hierarchy. Or because a decision absolutely has to be made, but any solution would bring unacceptable disadvantages for one of the sides. Because one wants something that the other does not want to give. Emotions easily come into play, making a rational decision difficult, sometimes even impossible. I call this situation a conflict.

So: difference of opinion + emotional involvement = conflict.

The genesis of conflict

Often the mess starts with the emotions on one of the sides, triggered by the feeling of being misunderstood or having one’s needs ignored.

The conversation gets louder, listening and wanting to understand is replaced by arguing and asserting, and after a few “Yes, but …” and “You must …” , “You never listen to me…”, or “You always say…” both sides are caught in a wonderful emotional escalation loop.

Sometimes both sides also get into the ring right at the beginning with a good mixture of frustration, pugnacity and will to survive. You probably know all this.

Often the only thing that helps in such situations is external support. Mediation for conflict resolution. If it doesn’t work, the result is inner emigration, passive-aggressive behaviour, hidden resistance or immediate dismissal, possibly even going to a divorce lawyer. Professionally or privately, it makes no difference, the patterns are the same.

If you want to resolve it yourself – that is also possible – you have to notice the lapse, even your own, at some point and react appropriately. This requires a strong competence in self-reflection as well as the skills to look at everything on a meta-level, to do a mental reset and to communicate appropriately. Hard work.

So we need approaches to three different situations:

  1. Preventing the emotional Pandora’s box from being opened and the other side becoming emotional through our re/actions.
  2. Preventing the other side’s emotionally underpinned communication from catching us on the wrong foot and us paying back in kind.
  3. Relaxing an emotionally charged situation and solving the problem.

This is where Columbo comes in. That’s right, that somewhat scatterbrained TV inspector in his rumpled overcoat. The one with his eternal “Oh, just one more thing…”! Who is so 70s and therefore already cult again. Columbo can help us because he faces a similar problem and has found a way to deal with it in a very relaxed and successful way. Let’s take a look at that now.

How does Inspector Columbo work?

First of all, his situation. Columbo’s adversaries are somewhat peculiar. They are the rich, famous, important people of Los Angeles, or at least those who think they are. This results in a certain proximity to the power in the city or to the chief of police directly. They like to play on this supposed superiority when the inspector gets too close to them with his questions. His police badge, the sign of his official power, is of no use to him at all. Fortunately, he has a boss who always interprets such complaints as hit pieces, but he doesn’t like angry celebrities on the phone either. Nevertheless, these complaints are annoying and hinder Columbo’s work.

So: keep your head down and still get to the target. For this purpose, the inspector has developed a series of techniques and procedures with which he avoids escalating the conversations, but still finds out what he wants to know. The most important patterns for this:

  • Columbo approaches a new case without any presuppositions. [The gardener is not automatically the murderer.]
  • Columbo always just asks questions instead of asserting something or even accusing people. [His legendary “Oh, just one more thing…”]
  • Columbo listens attentively and keeps asking until all ambiguities and contradictions are cleared up. [“Do you have any idea how …?”]
  • Columbo registers emotional reactions as important information about the sensitivities of his interlocutors, which he responds to when necessary. [In his case, it’s usually the perpetrators’ annoyance that he’s on to them, leading to a different tone of voice or brusque conversational breaks, for example].

Columbo is a friendly collector of information and situational understanding.

Three tasks for resolving conflicts

Three tasks can be derived from these patterns to resolve disagreements early on:

1. Prevent emotions from boiling up

For our first task, preventing emotions from boiling up, this means:

  • The first thing I do is listen to how the parties involved have experienced the situation in question and what their opinion is on it. [This is easier said than done, because often you already have an idea of what happened and why, and you start to check this idea. Then, if there is anger from above or outside, the relaxation is quickly over].
  • I only ask questions, I also formulate my assumptions as neutral questions “to clarify a fact.” [W-questions are very helpful, with the exception of the why-question, which can easily lead to emotional justifications instead of a factual exchange. With closed questions I check out basic situations or the position of others on information I already have. With open questions I learn new things about other people’s thoughts].
  • If the stories sound different or differ from other facts I know, I get the discrepancy explained to me. [Hmm, XY described it quite differently. Can you explain that to yourself? Shall we discuss it together?]
  • It is helpful to question supposed or actual appointments. [Tell me, didn’t we agree that …? ]

2. Do not react emotionally

For our second task, preventing the other side’s emotionally underpinned communication from catching us on the wrong foot and paying us back in kind, this means:

  • I know that emotional people are not talking about me, but about themselves. I know that the emotions have something to do with hurt or ignored needs, maybe even fears. I need to understand these in order to understand an action. The first thing that helps me is not to get upset about the tone of voice and possible verbal lapses. [A hurt person cannot hurt me!]
  • I can only resolve the factual issue after the emotional pressure is out of the kettle. I have to create a valve for that, otherwise it won’t work. I have to endure the pressure wave and show that I am trying to understand the situation. [Wow, you’re really pissed off, what’s going on, tell me… I see, doesn’t sound good. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thank you. What can we do about it]
  • The other side decides if and when it is ready to talk about the facts. She only does that when she feels understood. If I switch to the subject matter too early, everything starts all over again with even more pressure or the other side withdraws, both because it doesn’t feel understood. [What do you think, can we still talk now about how to get the current problem solved? It would be important…]
  • And then we continue with the approach of the 1st task (see above).

3 Clarifying an emotionally charged situation

For our third task, to resolve an emotional situation that has built up on both sides, Columbo can only help us to a limited extent, because something like this will not happen to him.

  • As soon as I notice that I’m getting myself worked up, the only thing I can do is make a hard cut, consciously reflect on my preoccupation, bring myself down through it and continue the conversation on a meta-level. [I’m just wondering why we’re bickering here. We were just trying to figure out how this could have gone so wrong and how we could fix it. Let’s start again from the beginning. What actually happened? | You’re angry because …, I’m angry because … and it’s not really our fault, is it? The solution lies somewhere else. Let’s make a suggestion for that].
  • Sometimes a little time-out helps. [I need a coffee now, should I bring you one?]
  • And then we continue with the approach from the second or first block, depending on how relaxed the situation is after the break.
  • Afterwards, I definitely think about what made me so upset, so that next time I’m prepared for this trigger and it doesn’t happen to me again.



I realise that my literal communication examples do not fit every situation. For such a universal communicator, we would need a lot of artificial intelligence in combination with a brain-reading-and-interpreting unit.

I could only explain the principle in broad strokes here:

  • Wanting to understand emotions,
  • taking nothing personally,
  • reacting empathically,
  • analysing situations without prejudice,
  • juggling with questions.

Of course, it is not always easy to remember these principles when dealing with others. If you should perhaps experience a conflict soon, then I have a final tip: think of Columbo. Think of his manner, his appearance, his “Oh, just one more thing…”. The thought regularly brings a smile to my face and conflicts are often much easier to clarify or resolve with a smile.



We are happy to recommend the German Communication.Cards by Conrad Giller. They help to playfully change ingrained language patterns in order to better shape discussions. It is about thoughtlessly used stereotypes, about shaping relationships, about helpful feedback and about decision making and decision communication. [What is so counterproductive about “Yes, but …” and “No, because …” and how can it be done much better? What phrases do I use to give or get good feedback. What about the question ” Do we all agree?” is not good for a decision-making process].

The offer is supplemented by the new Columbo.Cards. Many differentiated tips combined with useful video material – definitely a good tip.

Communication.Cards by Conrad Giller

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Conrad Giller has published other articles in the t2informatik Blog: 

t2informatik Blog: From why questions to miracle questions

From why questions to miracle questions

t2informatik Blog: Team Secrets - The hidden patterns of team development

Team Secrets – The hidden patterns of team development

t2informatik Blog: People ar quite different, aren't they?

People ar quite different, aren’t they?

Conrad Giller

Conrad Giller

Conrad Giller has been working for about 30 years as a trainer, coach and consultant for almost all challenges of oral communication: conflict, team, leadership, storytelling, presenting, moderating, media, etc. He is happy to pass on his experience online and offline in workshops.