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.
It was the constraint of the two-week hackathon that led to the creation of Twitter. One of the first decisions we made about Twitter, something that never changed, was that each message would be limited to 140 characters or fewer.
Although Twitter has now relaxed that limit to 280 characters, the idea remains the same – imposing an artificial constraint.
Stone explains —
Constraint inspires creativity. Blank spaces are difficult to fill, but the smallest prompt can send us in fantastic new directions. In business, constraints emerge from the time you have to finish a project, the money you have to invest in it, the people you have to build it, or the space to you have complete it. These limitations, counterintuitively, can actually enhance productivity and creativity.
Many professional soccer players practice with a ball in a small bathroom sized room. The self-imposed constraint of a small space helps them refine their skills. World class poets and writers shrink their field by using restrictive measures to force themselves into a small creative form – such as micro-writing exercise.
I always wonder about doctors who regularly deal with terminally ill people. Every day they have to look into the eyes of those who themselves are staring at death. Wouldn’t such frequent exposure desensitized these medical professionals to death? Especially their own death.
All human anxiety they say stems from the fundamental fear — the fear of dying. Yet, when it comes to making important choices, our lives mirror what Yudhishthira observed in Mahabharata.
A Yaksha quizzes Yudhishthira — what’s the biggest irony in this world?
Yudhishthira replies, “Everyday countless humans and creatures die, yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more ironical than this?”
The gap between two things — knowing that we’re going to die and letting that knowledge reflect on our actions — is ten miles wide.
There’s an apocryphal account of Bertrand Russel, a British scientist, who was approached by an old lady at the end of his lecture on astronomy.
“Your theory about the earth being round is interesting, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“Enlighten me madam.” inquired the scientist politely.
“The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle.” the lady said confidently.
The scientist decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see inconsistencies in her position.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
If this conversation happened a hundred years back, you’d not be surprised by the old lady’s argument. After all, the first man-made satellite didn’t go to space until 1957. A century ago, it wasn’t strange to come across smart and educated people who still believed that earth was flat.