Defending the Faith Part 3: Using Columbo to Lead the Way

| Saturday, June 25, 2011 | |
by Greg Koukl

The third use of Columbo takes us on the offensive, yet in an inoffensive way. We will ask a different kind of question, sometimes called a “leading question.”

As the name suggests, leading questions take the other person in the direction we want them to go. Think of yourself like an archer shooting at a target. Questions are your arrows. Your target will be different in different situations. Sometimes your goal will be to defeat what you think is a bad argument or a flawed point of view. Your questions will be “aimed” at that purpose. Or you may want to use questions to indirectly explain or advance your own ideas. Sometimes you will set up the terms of the conversation using questions to put you in a more beneficial position for your next move.

In each of these cases, questions accomplish two things mere statements cannot. Every time you ask a question and get a favorable response, the person is telling you he understands the point you’re making and he agrees with it, at least provisionally. He takes another step forward with you in the thinking process.

Here’s why this is so important. Ultimately, we want to win someone over to our point of view. But we do not want to “force” our opinions on him. Instead, we want to persuade him. When the steps to a conclusion are both clear and reasonable, it is much easier to convince someone because he can see the route clearly. He can even retrace it on his own if he wants to. With each question, we lead him closer toward our destination. In this way, we bring him along on the journey.

Generally, your leading questions will be used to inform, persuade, set up, or refute. Let me show you how this tactic plays out in a specific example.

As you step out as an ambassador for Christ, inevitably you will be asked what I call “the question.” It’s one of the most important questions anyone can ask, but it’s also one of the most difficult because the correct answer—a simple “yes”—would be wildly misleading.

“You’re saying that just because someone doesn’t believe in Jesus they are going to Hell?"

Someone once said if you word the question right, you can win any debate. This question is a classic case in point. A simple “yes” would be the correct answer, but it actually would distort the truth.

Remember that the first responsibility of an ambassador is knowledge—an accurately informed mind. Knowing that people need to trust in Jesus or face judgment, though, is not enough. Since this truth does not give an accurate sense of why Jesus matters, God seems petty, pitching people into Hell because of some inconsequential detail of Christian theology.

I addressed the issue of why Jesus is the only way when the question came up during a book promotion at a local Barnes & Noble. I met an attorney there who didn’t understand why he, a Jew, needed Jesus. He believed in God, and he was doing his best to live a moral life. Those were the important things, it seemed to him—how he lived, not what he believed. Here is how I used Columbo questions to lead him to a proper understanding of the cross.

“Let me ask you a question,” I began. “Do you think people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished?”

“Well, since I’m a prosecuting attorney,” he chuckled, “I guess I do.”

“Good. So do I. Now, a second question: Have you ever committed any moral crimes?”

He paused for a moment. This was getting personal. “Yes,” he nodded, “I guess I have.”

“So have I,” I offered candidly, agreeing with him again. “But that puts us both in a tight spot, doesn’t it? We both believe people who do bad things should be punished, and we both believe we’re guilty on that score.” I waited a moment for the significance to sink in. “Do you know what I call that?” I asked. “I call that bad news.”

In less than 60 seconds I had accomplished a remarkable thing with my two questions. I didn’t have to convince this man he was a sinner. He was telling me. I didn’t have to convince him he deserved to be punished. He was telling me.

I was tapping into a deep intuition every person shares: knowledge of his own guilt and a realization that his guilt should be punished. And I didn’t do it arrogantly or in an obnoxious, condescending way. I freely admitted I was in the same trouble he was.

Now that we agreed on the problem, it was time to give the solution. (This is where the “knowledge” part of the ambassador equation is so vital.)

“This is where Jesus comes in,” I explained. “We both know we’re guilty. That’s the problem. So God offers a solution: a pardon, free of charge. But clemency is on His terms, not ours. Jesus is God’s means of pardon. He personally paid the penalty in our place. He took the rap for our crimes. No one else did that. Only Jesus. Now we have a choice to make. Either we take the pardon and go free, or turn it down and pay for our crimes ourselves.”

In this conversation I handled an awkward question by combining two things: my knowledge of what Jesus accomplished on the cross with asking leading questions. My questions led the attorney, step by step, to an answer to his question.

You can employ the Columbo tactic to take the conversation in an entirely new direction. Instead of using questions to gather information, questions can be very effective to lead someone in the direction we want the conversation to go engaging the other person’s thoughts the whole way. Such “leading questions” often work better than statements to explain our view, to set up the discussion in a way that makes it easier for us to make our point, to soften our challenge to another’s view, or to indirectly exploit a flaw we detect in his thinking.

Unlike the first two uses of Columbo, this one requires knowledge of some kind. When we know what we want to accomplish (e.g., to inform, to persuade, to set-up, or to refute), we can use leading questions to achieve our purpose. This is a skill that develops over time, so if you stall out at first, don’t be discouraged. Instead of trying to force a conversation you don’t have the resources to pursue, you can simply move on knowing you have done the best that we could for the moment.

If someone’s thinking is flawed, the key to finding the error is to listen carefully to the reasons for his views, then ask if his conclusions follow from his evidence. Point out errors with questions rather than statements. You might soften your challenge by phrasing your concern as a request for clarification or by suggesting an alternative with the words “Have you considered…” before offering your own ideas.

Next week: Columbo - The First Question

For more extensive tactics training go to and look for Tactics in Defending the Faith Mentoring Series or STRi DVD interactive training in our online store or call Stand to Reason at 1-800-2-REASON.


D.B. Says:
June 26, 2011 at 11:43 AM

I wish all Christians would learn this. I wish I knew about it while in HS. When I was a lot more heat than light. I think you were the first to send me a tape on Moral Reletivism by Koukl years ago and I have been a fan ever since. Thanks. :-)


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