An excerpt from the book The McKinsey Way —
If you watched TV in the 1970s, you may remember Peter Falk’s trenchcoat-wearing detective, Lieutenant Columbo. After he finished quizzing a murder suspect about her whereabouts on the night in question, he would pick up his rumpled raincoat and head out the door. As he reached the threshold and was about to leave, he would turn around, stick his finger up to his temple, and say, “Excuse me, ma’am, but there’s something I forgot to ask.” This question invariably gave Columbo the answer he needed to figure out who did it.
If there’s a particular question you need to answer to, or a piece of data that you want, the Columbo tactic is often a good way to get it. Once the interview is over, everybody becomes more relaxed. The interviewee’s sense that you have some power over him will have disappeared. He is far less likely to be defensive, and will often tell you what you need or give you the information you seek on the spot. Try it; it works.
The Columbo Tactic is a psychological maneuver used by persuasion experts. It’s a subtle hack that goes unnoticed if one doesn’t know about it but it can get you what they want from others, i.e., compliance.
I have been at the receiving end of The Columbo Tactic at least once in my life.
In December 2003, I was resigning from my first job. The Vice President invited me to his cabin for an exit interview. He was obviously concerned because I was leaving the company after spending merely five months. The meeting was done in 20 minutes and I was stepping out of his office. Just when my one foot was out of his cabin, he fired the Columbo shot.
“By the way Anshul, are you sure there is no other reason for leaving the company?”
That was 15 years back but now I can connect the dots. The VP did know a thing or two about human psychology and persuasion tactics.