What Columbo Can Teach Us about Internal Investigations

Be humble, be nice and never underestimate the power of rapport-building

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on October 4th, 2012

When conducting investigation interviews, take a hint from Lieutenant Columbo, who always got to the bottom of things, even when the odds were stacked against him. His humble, conversational style of questioning put his subjects at ease and enticed more than a few people to spill the beans.

One of Columbo’s signature tactics was his slow and measured way of engaging the subject and building rapport with questions that would “help him to understand” the case. His frequent “oh, and just one more thing” questions as he was leaving a room often pinpointed the very fact on which the case hinged.

“Sorry I have to ask this,” Columbo used to say, eliciting a sympathetic reaction and often an honest answer from the subject.
Expert investigator and member of the ASIS Investigations Council, Timothy Reddick, CPP, PCI, CFE, likes Columbo’s approach to questioning suspects. He gives the “help me understand” tactic as a fine example of how to draw information from a witness or suspect. Reddick, who was director of fraud and special investigations for the city of Philadelphia before he retired, has many years of interviewing experience from which to draw his conclusions about successful approaches to evidence-gathering.

Never Accuse

The Columbo approach, says Reddick, is friendly and non-confrontational, almost apologetic. “Sorry I have to ask this,” Columbo used to say, eliciting a sympathetic reaction and often an honest answer from the subject.

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You need to establish rapport, explains Reddick. “Act like you believe them,” he advises. “That’s how you develop rapport.” Instead of questioning something you don’t believe, ask for clarification. Again, it’s the “help me understand” approach that Columbo used so successfully, never taking on an accusatory tone.

The non-confrontational interview will get you to the truth more often than other methods. Being friendly, establishing rapport and stressing that you are just trying to help to clarify things, is an effective tactic, says Reddick.

Othello’s Error

Another very good reason to give the impression you believe your subject, even if you don’t, is to reduce your chances of committing what is known as “Othello’s Error”, a phrase coined by Paul Ekman in his 1985 book, Telling Lies. According to Ekman, this error occurs when a suspicious observer discounts cues of truthfulness, given the observer’s need to confirm his or her suspicions of deception. The “lie catcher” fails to consider that a truthful person who is under stress may appear to be lying.

“If someone perceives that you don’t believe them or you accuse them of lying, then sometimes their behavior adapters will be the same as someone who is being deceptive. So behavior adapters then become unreliable,” says Reddick. By giving the subject the impression that you believe him or her and using a non-confrontational approach, you can reduce his or her stress level and be better positioned to read any signs of deception.

Unfortunately, sometimes people have the perception you don’t believe them even when you are being non-confrontational. In these cases you have to remember that those adaptors may be unreliable, says Reddick.

Don’t Assume

“If you think you know whether or not they are lying, you are going to be deceived at times,” says Reddick, citing the many myths people rely on to detect deception, including the myth that a subject who avoids eye contact is being deceptive.

“I spent 15 years overseas and there are a lot of cultures that avoid eye contact whatsoever, because looking you straight in the eye is aggressive. And even here, there are lots of people who are very good at deceiving who know the eye contact ‘tell’ and intentionally use it to deceive,” he says.

So if you really want a subject to tell you what you need to know, take a lesson from Columbo. Go into the conversation with an open mind and get the subject to help you “understand”, to “clarify things” for you, and to enlighten you about “just one more thing”.


Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.