Solve problems with Columbo’s questioning techniques instead of letting them escalate into conflicts
Excuse me? Columbo? The one with his eternal ‘Oh, one more question…’? How is he supposed to help me today? He’s so 70s! He is. And yet this somewhat scatterbrained Inspector in his rumpled coat still gets his viewers and is almost a cult figure again. So there’s something behind his façade that appeals to us. We will find out. First back to the present, to our daily communication problems in the new world of cooperation.
Communicating in the new world of collaboration
Communication is not everything, but without communication everything is nothing. In our case, this means: without the right communication patterns, all the nice approaches to improving cooperation are doomed to failure.
The problem: many leadership and communication tips written for the hierarchical and power-occupied command & control world are simply no longer suitable for teams that work independently, want to contribute their potential and take responsibility.
Leadership comes with a completely new self-image, certain positions and responsibilities have disappeared from the hierarchy, and instead new roles and functions have emerged that have to find their place in the system and with which others have to learn to work together. It can escalate when the old and new worlds collide operationally and mentally.
In addition – developments are more difficult to predict and require much greater agility, the half-life of decisions is becoming shorter and shorter.
This also means that disagreements and the resulting problems have to be solved differently. It is no longer about the strength to assert one’s own position, and even to take conflict into account if necessary, but about the ability to find a good solution together. This also includes dealing with the needs of the other team members in an appreciative way – and of course also with one’s own sensitivities. That was not necessarily planned for in Command & Control, there were no language patterns for that at all.
What does that mean in concrete terms for our communication?
Problem and opportunity: communication without power
The situation: An action has not gone as planned, the result is unsatisfactory. The situation is unclear. Maybe you even have an idea who caused all this.
Problem I – The question of power in three variations:
- You have no position of power over the person in question, you cannot demand clarification and accusations would trigger an escalation.
- You would have the power and playing this card might lead to a clarification at the moment, but at the same time it would damage the relationship permanently.
- You have the power and consciously do not want to use it because you hope to achieve so much more.
Short version: You have an urgent and important task to do, but power is not the way to force the solution. Does this sound familiar? Then keep at it.
Problem II – Three things can stand in the way of a good, clarifying conversation:
- You have to solve the problem, it is pressing, a repetition must not happen. This makes them impatient.
- You think you know how it happened. That’s why you ask the wrong questions.
- You think you know the answers, that’s why you don’t listen in the conversation.
It seems to be a long and difficult way from here to a good conversation about the causes and the joint development of solutions. And this is where the somewhat quirky TV Inspector Columbo is supposed to help us?
Exactly, because he has the same problem as you and has found his own way to deal with it in a very relaxed way.
How does Inspector Columbo work?
Columbo has an urgent and important task, but he has no power or cannot use it. His police badge is of no use to him, because his 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 closeness to the power in the city or to the chief of police directly and they like to play on this supposed superiority when the Inspector gets too close to them with his questions. Fortunately, he has a boss who always interprets such complaints as hit pieces. But still, these complaints are annoying and hinder Columbo’s work.
Therefore, the Inspector has developed a series of questioning techniques to avoid escalating the conversation and still get to know what he wants to know. The three most important patterns:
- Columbo talks to everyone in the same friendly way. This has the invaluable advantage that he never has to apologise for an unjustified accusation.
- He always just asks questions instead of interpreting, and collects the answers like pieces of a puzzle until everything fits together. Of course, the questions become more and more precise, but they remain questions.
- He has a sense for emotional changes. If a reaction does not fit the situation, he becomes alert and gets to the bottom of the irritation.
Transferred to our everyday communicative life, these language patterns mean:
- Avoiding conflicts from arising and escalating.
- Appreciative, relaxed conversations at eye level.
- Maximum gain of information.
- Results-oriented conversation.
- Good basis for joint work on sensible solutions.
Who is Columbo?
Who Columbo really is, how he works, that’s what Bill Link¹ told me in a long conversation a few years ago. To make a long story short: Columbo is made up of two literary models.
One is a character from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the examining magistrate Perfori Petrovich. He was a very special type, an intellectual trapper. A clever analyst with a high capacity for deduction. He builds his web like a spider and waits patiently until something twitches somewhere.
The two authors liked this style; non-violence was their lifelong theme. But the figure still had a flaw for them. Perforij Petrowitsch was a hunter. Bringing down the perpetrator was his passionate mission. When the arrest came within reach, he would get adrenaline rushes. This bothered Richard Levinson² and Link. A hunter was not relaxed enough for them.
They found a second interesting template, Chesterton’s Father Brown. A quiet guy whose path was always crossed by criminal contemporaries. His job was to bring the black sheep back into the fold, he solved the cases rather incidentally. Father Braun’s behaviour is influenced by three interesting aspects:
- First, for him there is only one judge in the world, and he is not in the world, but somewhere higher up. Which is why it was not up to him to judge the person.
- Secondly, through his profession, he knows the range of human nature. He knows what people are capable of and is not shocked or surprised when it happens again.
- And thirdly, all these black sheep are only on earth because his Lord wants it that way. So it is always just another test for him to lead the lost person back to the right path. As soon as he believes that his candidate is purified and will lead a godly life in the future, at that moment he takes leave of him and leaves the rest to the worldly power. His work is done.
The new mindset for solving difficult problems
And Columbo? It’s the clever analysing and combining, patiently waiting head of Perforij Petrowitsch and the understanding people and not judging them belly of Father Braun: a friendly and clever information gatherer and problem solver! Interesting mindset, isn’t it?
So we have found the principle behind Columbo’s behaviour patterns and questioning techniques, his special way of talking to people, his mental autopilot.
- Not judging, but wanting to understand.
- Not accusing, but questioning until the answers fit.
- Not putting himself above others, but rather making himself smaller in case of doubt.
It is not important to Inspector Columbo to be thought clever, rather the opposite. He only cares about finding answers, about solving a task. He subordinates everything to this, including himself. His offer is always clear and open questions at eye level, but if someone wants to play with him, he can do that too, and better.
How can Columbo’s rules help you?
- You can learn how to make difficult conversation situations more relaxed and successful for both sides in the future.
- You no longer need a position of power to clarify a problem, whether you have it or not. Good questioning techniques, attentive listening, result orientation and socially competent behaviour are enough.
- If you want, from now on you will also always have your personal coach with you for tricky situations. You just have to ask yourself: “What would Columbo do now?” You can be sure that you will think of something suitable.
- And what’s more, you now know the world’s only training concept with a regular teaching event on television. There’s always a Columbo on somewhere.
We are happy to recommend the Communication.Cards by Conrad Giller. They help to playfully change established language patterns in order to better shape discussions. An infinite number of tips, great quotes and a great feel – definitely a good tip for people who speak German.
Conrad Giller has published more posts in the t2informatik Blog:
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.