Defending the Faith Part 4: Columbo Step One

| Saturday, July 2, 2011 | 0 comments |
Defending the Faith Part 4: Columbo Step One:

“What do you mean by that?”

by Greg Koukl

The first question of the Columbo tactic is to gain information. Sometimes you just need more information to know how to proceed further.

This is the simplest way to use the Columbo tactic. It is virtually effortless, putting no pressure on you at all. When used this way, the questions can buy you valuable time, help you know how to proceed in the conversation, give you information for this and future encounters, and be a casual conversation-starter.

Key question: “What do you mean by that?” (or some variation)

This clarification question tells you what a person thinks so you don’t misunderstand her or, worse, misrepresent her. It should be delivered in a mild, genuinely inquisitive fashion. This question also forces the person to be precise in her meaning, as many people object to Christianity for reasons they don’t completely understand themselves.

This first Columbo question accomplishes five important objectives.

1. It immediately engages the non-believer in an interactive way.
2. It flatters the non-believer because it shows genuine interest in his or her view.
3. It forces the non-believer to think more carefully and more precisely maybe for the first time
about his intended meaning.
4. It gives you valuable information about the non-believer’s exact position.
5. It positions the non-believer in the defensive position while placing you in control of the conversation.

Be sure to pay attention to the response. If it’s unclear, follow up with more questions. Say, “Let me see if I understand you on this…,” then feed back the view to make sure you got it right.

By the way, don’t let them merely repeat what they just said. For example:

“You’re intolerant.”
“What do you mean by the word ‘intolerant’?”
“I mean you are intolerant!”

Sometimes this first Columbo question is directed at a specific statement or topic of conversation. Other times, the question can be more open-ended. As the discussion continues, gently guide the dialogue into a more spiritually productive direction with additional questions.

Learning how to ask this first question is your key to productive conversations, as people often don’t know what they mean by the things they say. Often, they are merely repeating slogans. Frequently, their statements, questions, opinions, or points of view are so muddled it’s impossible to proceed in conversation without clarification. Asking the question “What do you mean by that?” is the simplest way to clear up the confusion, while also giving you time to size up the situation and gather your thoughts.

Do not underestimate the power of this question. Use it often.

You can ask this question all day long and there is absolutely no pressure on you.

In the next email, I'll introduce you to the second Columbo question.

Next week: Columbo - Question Two

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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