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The Columbo Technique


Techniques > Questioning > The Columbo Technique

Get them talking | Slip in the real question | One last thing | See also


Lieutenant Columbo, as played by Peter Falk in the 1970s television series 'Columbo', uses a questioning technique that has been successfully adopted by more than just policemen.

Columbo uses two steps to his method: (a) Get them talking, and then (b) Slip in the real question.

Get them talking

Columbo starts with casual open questions, just to put the other person at ease and get them freely talking. His shabby dress and ambling gait signals that he is harmless. When he talks, his confused demeanor further indicates a level of apparent incompetence, confirming the first impressions of harmlessness.

He is friendly and a welcome respite from the more threatening other policemen who are often around (making this a subtle use of the good-cop, bad-cop 'Hurt and Rescue' routine). His inconsequential chatter loosens their tongues and before long they are happily engaged in distracting conversation.

Slip in the real question

When the other person is sufficiently relaxed and Columbo has achieved good bonding, he slips in a question about what he really wants to know.

One of the tricks he uses is to phrase the question indirectly. If he wants to know whether a person drives a red car, he picks up something red and talks about a car he used to have that was the same shade of red. The conversation might go something like this:

"This is a nice clock. You know, I used to have a car exactly the same color as this. Chevvy, it was."

"Hey, I've got a red Chevvy!"

"Have you? Well, you know mine was a pretty good one."

"Well mine's a '56. Special convertible!"

"There aren't too many of those around."

"Yeah, I got it from a guy down on 52nd Street."

And now Columbo has found a very useful clue without the other person every realizing that they have given the game away.

One last thing

The other variant that Columbo used, again when the other person's defenses were down, would be to add one last question just as he is leaving.

"Oh, ah, is that your cousin's car outside?"

The person being questioned has already reached closure on the session and is looking forward to the complete closure of being left alone. Columbo's question thus catches them off their guard and they answer him without thinking, just to get him out of the way.

And one last thing: 'One last thing' statements (not questions) can also be used to leave the person in a state of tension as Columbo drops a big gotcha just before he leaves (and without letting the other person achieve closure by responding).

"...oh yes, I forgot -- your cousin said he lent you the car last week."

See also

Closure principle, Confusion principle, Hurt and Rescue principle

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