As Columbo, Falk lulled perps into a false sense of security by appearing distracted, disorganized, and perhaps mildly mentally challenged. His wardrobe — the rumpled raincoat in sunny Los Angeles — and wonky eye augmented his out-of-touch and unfocused persona. His “oh, just one more thing” tagline was the audience’s cue that he was just about to nail the smug, usually wealthy and glamorous, suspect.
In mediation, we can take a page from Columbo’s script and play (or really be) dumb, to encourage clients to open up. Asking simple, open-ended questions with childlike, even bovine, curiosity, is among our most powerful tools. A few examples:
— Encouraging clients to think more broadly than the conflict itself: “I don’t know much about the products you manufacture at Spacely Sprockets….can you tell me more about them?
— Dealing with profanity: “You used the word “bitch” when describing Angie….can you help me get a better sense of what you meant by that?”
— Getting parties to talk about what excites them: “Sounds like you’re very passionate about Star Wars action figures — and I apologize for calling them “dolls”. Can you share a bit more about your hobby?”
— Channeling what’s worked in the past between parties: “I heard you say you were friends for many years before this conflict. Can you talk about your friendship was like before?”
For sure, there are models of mediation in which it makes sense to be a content expert, and/or be respected for your intelligence. But much of the time, we get to absolve ourselves from that kind of pressure, and revel in being dumb, and/or dumber.
Oh, just one more thing…