The Columbo Effect
The recent passing of Peter Falk brings to mind one of the most useful techniques in negotiation. It’s called “The Columbo Effect.”
As a homicide detective in Los Angeles, Lt. Columbo wore a raggedy trench coat, drove a beat-up Peugeot, told corny and heartwarming stories about his wife and dog, and had the habit of forgetting to ask a key question in every interview and interrogation.
In short, he put the other person at ease because they felt superior to Columbo. “How could this bumbling, scatterbrained misfit outwit me?” they all mused.
For the negotiator, whether you’re trying to win a million-dollar contract or simply make a sale, it’s advantageous to appear a “little less okay” than your respected opponent. It makes them feel comfortable and maybe even a bit smug.
Then you’ve got them right where you want them.
This is not to say that you should be unprofessional. Leveraging The Columbo Effect simply means not being afraid of being less than perfect. Do you enjoy being around perfect people? No one does. If you show the other person that you’re imperfect, they will be more apt to make mistakes. Think of Columbo. He always got his man or woman—and that’s because they usually said too much, assuming he was inept, and then dropped clues right in his lap.
How do you act “less okay” than your opponent in a negotiation? Struggle a bit with your answer. Ask to borrow a pen and paper to take notes. Forget your business cards for the first meeting. Drop your glasses mid-discussion.
The tougher the negotiation, the more critical it is to understand that if someone in the room has to be not-okay, it will be you and not your adversary. When your adversary feels not-okay, the barriers go up much faster than you can break them down. But not-okay-ness on your part, or The Columbo Effect, breaks down barriers like magic.
If you have any doubts about the wisdom of this advice, it couldn’t be easier to check out. The next time you find yourself in a situation in which your adversary is maybe just a little standoffish or doubtful, try being a little less okay than they are. Pretend your pen has run out of ink, or search your pocket for some paper and ask to borrow a slip of theirs. You will notice an immediate, beneficial difference in the atmosphere of this negotiation.
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