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.
Columbo in negotiations
By translating Columbo’s technique into negotiations, you can get the same effect - without the tug-of-war, without the verbal battle, without sweating bullets. How? Let’s reverse-engineer this technique:
- Don’t flex your muscles
In one episode, Columbo goes to a diplomatic ball organised in an Arab consulate, wearing long pants and an oversized, mismatched tailcoat borrowed from a waiter friend. He drove around in an old, dilapidated Peugeot 403, even when approaching sumptuous upper class estates, arousing pity rather than fear.
To achieve success in negotiations, you don’t need to show your strength, and you don’t need to show the size of your wallet. You don’t have to be as expressive and provocative as Columbo, because people tend to like people similar to themselves, which leads them to make concessions. It’s enough to be just a ‘bit worse off’ - in cheaper clothes, in a cheaper car, without a flash watch on your wrist. So, if you drive Maserati or Bentley on a daily basis, it’s better to park it a few blocks from the meeting place, or to switch out your Rolex for a sporty Swatch.
- Play the lawyer
One episode of the series begins with a scene in the residence of a certain Mrs. Williams, who murdered her husband the day before, and who is now trying to confuse the gathered investigators by suggesting that her husband was kidnapped for ransom. At one point, a scratching noise is heard from behind the front door, as if a cat or dog were scratching the door frame. Mrs. Williams opens the door, and Columbo - in his usual wrinkled raincoat - rises from his knees like a schoolboy caught cheating, explaining clumsily that he wanted to ring the bell, but a pen fell out of his pocket and he was just looking for it...
Columbo always behaves as if it’s his first day as a detective. He acts inept, yet it’s his seeming ineptitude that allows him to easily expose opponents. Even if you’re an experienced negotiator, never show it. When people find out (or begin to sense) that they’re talking with a seasoned negotiator, they immediately start to watch out for various sales tricks and techniques. They act tense, look suspicious, and approach any proposal with great distrust. It’s difficult to conduct an effective conversation about transaction terms and conditions in such an atmosphere. It’s better to introduce yourself as an amateur and to ask for their understanding. In this way, it’ll be easier for you to change your position or bring up further conditions.
- Ask questions
Almost every time he talks to a suspect, Columbo takes advantage of his amateur appearance, using a trick we might call the ‘apparent exit’: he stands in the door and says goodbye, then suddenly returns to either ask for some little thing (a recipe or an autographed photo for his wife) or to ask another question that he just remembered. Since it’s probably the hundredth question he’s asked, the suspect is on the verge of exhaustion and suddenly says more than they originally intended to, just to get Columbo to leave.
Before you discuss money and other transaction terms, ask questions. Start with insignificant questions that will help you establish a relationship, then move on to tougher questions that will give you ammunition for negotiations. First of all, try to understand your counterpart’s situation - after each proposal they put forward, ask why it’s important to them. If you create the right atmosphere for a trusting conversation, your questions won’t seem strange, and your counterpart won’t feel like they’re being interrogated. Instead, they’ll offer you sympathy and trust, because they’re working with someone who wants to understand them. And that’s just a step away from hearing: ‘I’ll tell you how it really is ...’.
- Appreciate your counterpart
As the well-known sales rule goes: ’People buy from people they like‘, which can be translated into the language of negotiations as: ’People make concessions for those they like‘. They also like those who make them feel important and influential, and with whom they can build their sense of comfort. Columbo knew this well, not only by appearing to be an amateur (and therefore weaker), but also by giving clever compliments and skilfully flattering his counterparts at the beginning of each conversation. That’s how he acted, regardless of whether he was meeting a corrupt politician, an influential judge, or a distinguished orchestra conductor who turned out to be a ruthless murderer.
Appreciation is a basic relationship technique you can use to win over your conversation partner. But be careful! Always express appreciation for specific actions, words, or decisions. If you overdo the flattery, the effect will be the opposite. Instead of building a relationship based on trust, you’ll become just another salesperson who doles out compliments to get a quick sale.
Peter Falk, who played the role of Lieutenant Columbo, died in 2011. After his death, Nicolas Cage remembered him as a man who ’managed to win me over within a moment of our first handshake‘. If you use the unforgettable detective’s techniques, you too will hear compliments like that, and be assured of your sales. They’ll soar.
Footnotes / Bibliography / Legal basis
- Roger Dawson, Secrets of Power Negotiating for Salespeople, Career Press, 2010.
- Robert Mayer, How to Win Any Argument: Without Raising Your Voice, Losing Your Cool, or Coming to Blows, Career Press, 2005