Learning From the Lieutenant

Hello, lovely lurkers! Say, I have a wee work-in-progress that I think you’d enjoy. Check it out: I was asked recently to discuss how Lieutenant Columbo (of the self-named 1970s detective series) and his masterful way of getting self-important murderers eating out of the palm of his hand, can relate to marketing techniques in business scenarios.

What a fascinating correlation! And I was rereading bits of Chris Voss’ Never Split the Difference, a book on negotiation techniques and how they apply to the biz world, at that time, and so my brain got into a fun spin. Here below are some rough-spun ideas in both those veins, that I’ve been playing with. I would very much appreciate commentary, creative tangents, explosions, or, maybe just One More Thing, to help with my revisions…

How to Columbo

The concept that I want to talk about is that of STATUS. Actors use status shifts all the time to convey clear character relationships. Status in this case refers to social status, not economic status (though of course the one can influence the other). 

Humans are herd animals—we constantly microadjust our status in all social situations, professional or personal. You can raise or lower your own status, or raise or lower someone else’s. We do this in the things we say aloud and in our body language. 

You might think that in an important business interaction that it would be best to always try and be the highest status person in the room, that a higher social status would be the most powerful. Very often that’s not true. Frequently, it’s lifting the other person’s status or even lowering your own that’s the most potent choice. How is this possible?

Nobody in all of fiction better exemplifies the power of lowering one’s own status and raising another’s than Lieutenant Columbo, of 1970s’ TV fame. This show’s pleasing pattern is to pit a rich, powerful, intelligent and arrogant murderer, who thinks s/he has taken care of all their loose ends and is above the law, against little, rumpled, scruffy, shambling and cigar-smoking Columbo. In almost every instance, you can see how the doughty Lieutenant paves the way for the self-satisfied murderer to paint themselves into a corner. He does this by precisely and systematically lowering his own status while raising the murderer’s. The murderer thinks Columbo is slow and stupid and clueless until it’s far too late. 

You’ve read those sales and negotiation manuals that maintain it’s a great idea to not out-power the other person but to deftly guide them into thinking they’ve made all the choices you wanted them to make. You can’t do that by commanding them, most of the time. 

So how do you actually do this? Well, how does Columbo do it?

Let’s look at a specific example: 

Season 1, ep 2: Death Lends a Hand

-I highly recommend watching the whole episode (contact me for my house Columbo drinking game). 🙂

-But! the scene I’m dissecting begins at 25:32 in the free Amazon Prime Video version. The scene begins with Mr. Kennicut entering a lavish red room with Columbo following doggedly behind.

-CHARACTERS:

  • Mr. Kennicut, a huge newspaper mogul, widowed husband of the murdered woman.
  • Lieutenant Columbo, most brilliant detective in the world, though very few people know this. 
  • Private Investigator Brimmer, former police detective, now a high powered and very wealthy PI with his own state-of-the-art firm. Just recently investigated Mrs. Kennicut for adultery and attempted to blackmail her. This turned into an accidental murder. 
  • BACKGROUND NOTE for this scene: Kennicut doesn’t know anything about Brimmer’s part in the murder, nor that his wife was having an affair (Brimmer told him she had a “clean bill of health” after having hired him to find this info). Columbo has not met Brimmer before he enters this scene. 
    • Also: notice before anything is spoken aloud: how Columbo’s physical mannerisms, posture, and mode of dress already establish him as someone of lower status. The moment a rich and egotistical murderer takes one look at him, any danger he may have felt from him pretty much goes away. There’s no way *this* guy is the smartest one in the room. Right?

Now let’s see how Lieutenant Columbo gets vital information out of these two very high status men:

Watch the scene in question, and look for these moments:

MOMENTS OF NOTE:

  1. Talking to commissioner the other day / I’m only here in a supplemental capacity
  2. You worked security for him? / no a personal matter 
  3. I’m grateful for all the help I can get 
  4. I suddenly feel much more optimistic 
    1. Launches right into palmistry 
  5. Seizes Brimmer’s hand before he asks for permission 
  6. Wrong door—praises the look of the clubs
    1. Questions about clubs, says they’re not important 
  7. Brimmer: police techniques have changed

What do these moments tell us?

  1. Notice how Columbo is letting the two high status men talk as much as possible. Brimmer comes right in with raising his own status, saying he was at a party with Columbo’s boss. He puts him in his place while condescendingly referring to his “understanding” of Columbo’s working class problems. 
  2. Columbo hasn’t spoken hardly a word until he asks how the two men know each other. Brimmer makes the mistake of mentioning that his work for Kennicut was a “personal matter,” which of course would make Columbo immediately see it must have had something to do with Kennicut’s wife. Already Columbo has gotten the idea that Brimmer is somehow involved with her murder, since he’s horning his way into the case, and was involved in that “personal matter.”
    1. In the scene just before, Columbo echoes Kennicut’s odd phrase, “a clean bill of health” to mean his wife was faithful. Not a normal way to describe that, and so already Columbo is thinking maybe there was some kind of professional investigation. Brimmer then mentioning “a personal matter” pretty much verifies that he was involved. 
  3. By saying he’s grateful for the help, Columbo is going along with Brimmer’s assertion that he needs the help. By doing this, he affirms Brimmer’s high status, while lowering his own. He also makes sure Brimmer feels comfortable involving himself—that is, Brimmer won’t likely notice any suspicion on Columbo’s part since he’s being so buttered up. So now, Columbo can keep him close by, to keep an eye on him too, without him knowing he’s doing so.
  4. “I suddenly feel much more optimistic about this whole thing” is a pretty clever piece of snark by Columbo—he’s basically thanking Brimmer for walking right into his hands.
    1. Columbo then launches immediately into all that palmistry nonsense here, just to keep Brimmer still feeling superior and to lower his own status again (also probably to ease whatever sharpness that earlier phrase may have shown). But look what powerful moves he’s able to accomplish by prattling along this way. The men let him do this because they don’t feel threatened.
  5. Columbo looks at Kennicut’s palm first because he’s already created a rapport with him (he can also pretend to read his recent calamity accurately in his palm). Notice Columbo grabs Brimmer’s hand before asking permission. Just in case Brimmer gets offended or worried by this (or tries to pull his hand away), Columbo comes up with a whole lot of nonsensical praise: he touts Brimmer’s ambition, distinction, power, etc. This both continues to lower his own status while raising Brimmer’s even more. And it keeps Brimmer’s hand in Columbo’s–he’s got plenty of time to gather clues.
    1. At the end of the episode when Brimmer is caught, Columbo admonishes him: “You should never have let me read your palm.” During this whole palmistry bit, Columbo is getting the details of Brimmer’s ring, which is a damning clue as it matches the cut/bruise on the murdered woman’s cheek. But Brimmer is so caught up in the praise and in his own condescending amusement at Columbo’s antics that it doesn’t cross his mind at the time.
  6. Whether or not Columbo meant to open the wrong door, the bumbling further lowers his status (I happen to think he opened that door on purpose, but I can’t find textual evidence either way). This means he can pepper Kennicut with all these new questions without there being any worry on Brimmer’s side. Brimmer basically thinks Columbo is an idiot, while Columbo continues to extract some very important clues.
    1. Columbo praises the clubs before touching them, which is what allows him to grab them, which is how he discovers they’re ladies’ clubs and belonged to the murdered woman, which is how he discovers she was taking golf lessons. He would never have gotten all this new information if he hadn’t bumbled into the closet. 
    2. The golf clubs are a big clue, as the man Mrs. Kennicut had the affair with was her golf instructor. Had Columbo attempted high status choices here, he would never have gotten this far. 
      1. The camera does cut to Brimmer during Columbo’s golf club interrogations but if he starts to feel like Columbo is getting anywhere, Columbo assures them that his questions aren’t important. Columbo further lowers his status once more and soothes Brimmer by cutely asking, “is this the right door?” before leaving. 
  7. Success! Brimmer’s smug comment about police techniques being different these days tells us he’s sufficiently been pumped up, is feeling superior and safe, and sees nothing sharp or dangerous in the Lieutenant. 

Now obviously I’m not saying you should dress like a slob and act like an idiot in order to soothe your potential clients into entering a deal. But in Columbo’s extreme example you can see how the high status choice isn’t always the most powerful, and that letting the other guy speak, or praising them and listening for a while, instead of plowing forward with your own agenda, can often work much better. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s