Defending the Faith Part 8: The Power of Columbo

| Saturday, July 30, 2011 | |
by Greg Koukl

Once you’ve learned the Columbo tactic, you’ll be amazed at how deftly you can navigate through a discussion. Many people you talk to will struggle when you turn the tables and they’re being asked to provide evidence for their views. They will try to change the subject or simply reassert their views, sometimes because they haven’t thought much about the issue you’re discussing. Dodging your question may be their only recourse.

It is critical that you “narrate the debate” at this point. Take a moment to stop and describe what’s going on in the conversation. This will help your friend (and others listening in) to see how she’s gotten off course. You can say, “Hold on. First you made a fairly controversial statement, which I challenged you to clarify and defend. So far, you haven’t done that. You’ve just taken off in another direction. Before we move on to a new topic, can we finish this one?”

Don’t let your friend get off the hook by dodging the issues. This approach keeps the pressure on while keeping the conversation cordial. Encourage your opponent to clarify herself. Forcing her to face the music may be the first step toward a change of mind.

The Columbo tactic can also help keep you out of the “hot seat.” Sometimes the fear of getting in over our heads is enough to keep us from saying anything at all. We especially dread the possibility of some aggressive critic blasting us with arguments, opinions, or information we are not equipped to handle.

The Columbo tactic questions help control the conversation when you fear being overmatched by the person opposing you. To buy yourself some thinking time, simply switch into fact-finding mode. Begin by slowing them down with, “Hold on a minute; this is new to me.” Next say, “I want to understand your point, so can you carefully tell me what you believe and why you believe it?” (the first two Columbo questions.) Finish by saying, “Then let me think about it.” Then work on the issue later at your leisure when the pressure is off.

Think for a moment how useful this approach is. Instead of trying to resist the force of another’s attack, practice a little verbal Aikido; just step aside and let him barge right in. Give him the floor and invite him to make his case. However, he must do it slowly and carefully so you’ll have an opportunity to fully understand his point.

When you are being overwhelmed, this move to fact-finding mode takes you completely out of the hot seat. It deftly shifts control of the conversation back to you while shifting the spotlight and the pressure back on him. You are no longer under any obligation to answer, refute, or even respond because you’ve already said you need to give the issue more thought.

This is easy. Essentially you’re saying, “Oh, you want to beat me up? Fine with me. Just do it slowly and thoroughly.” This is a move that even the most delicate, retiring, shy, bashful, skittish, timid, or reserved personality can employ with great effect.

The advantage of the Columbo tactic is not having to assert something you want someone else to believe in. You aren’t taking the burden of proof on yourself. Instead, your question makes the point for you. This accomplishes your goal in an entirely different and much more powerful way.

Next time: The art of asking questions

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.


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