• Mike

The Columbo Tactic - "What do you mean by that?"

The Columbo Tactic will help you stay in the driver’s seat of any conversation without being pushy, uptight, or unpleasant, but also without having to be especially clever or knowledgeable.

You can do that by learning a handful of simple techniques to help you deal with objections, manage aggressive challengers, and even turn the tables by exploiting the bad thinking found in many of the objections against Christianity.


The first tactic is central to the game plan. Lt. Columbo (of 70s TV fame) came across as a bumbling, inept, and harmless detective, but he had a trademark approach that always helped him get his man. He’d furrow his brow, scratch his head, then turn to his suspect and say, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

Asking carefully selected questions is the key to creating a convenient bridge from the content you know about Christianity to the conversation you want to have with a non-Christian. It’s a friendly way to draw people out while keeping the pressure off you.

As a general rule,

never make a statement

when a question will get the job done.

The Columbo game plan has three key components which can be utilized as you engage with people in conversation.

1. Gather information by asking, “What do you mean by that?”

Sometimes you need more information to know how to proceed further. This first question encourages the other person to clarify his view so you don’t misunderstand or misrepresent it. It also forces him to think more carefully about his view instead of just repeating what he heard from others.

2. Shift the burden of proof by asking, “How did you come to that conclusion?”

Don’t give your challenger a free ride by letting him make claims without having to give reasons for his view. If he thinks there are many ways to God, it’s his job to explain why, not yours to show otherwise.

When you’re up against a tough challenger you can’t handle, go immediately into fact-finding mode. Ask your first two Columbo questions, listen carefully to the answers, then dodge the heat by saying, “I need to think about that.” Later, when the pressure is off, study up and work out a response.

3. Lead the person to some important insight.

Questions can be used to indirectly make your point, explain your view, or point out a weakness or a flaw in a challenge. When asking questions using Columbo the third way, always have a goal in mind. Have a target you're shooting for and use questions as the arrows to hit that target.

Sample Conversation from Greg Koukl, author of Tactics:

Once a waitress said to me, “All religions are basically the same.” (Notice that she made the claim here.)

“Really?” I asked. “In what way?” (Columbo #1)

Remarkably, my question stunned her into silence. She didn’t know what to say. Apparently, she’d thought so little about it she wasn’t able to clarify her own claim “Well, no one can ever know the truth about religion,” she finally said (another claim).

“Why would you think that?” I asked (Columbo #2).

This turn-about also caught her by surprise. She was used to asking this question, not answering it. “Well the Bible’s been changed and retranslated so many times over the centuries, you can’t trust it,” was all she could come up with (yet another claim).

Oh? How do you know the Bible’s been changed?” (Columbo again)

Finally in frustration she said, “I feel like you’re backing me into a corner.” I wasn’t trying to be unkind or bully her intellectually. However, I was trying to challenge her politely with fair questions she couldn’t answer, so she felt trapped.

Critics rarely are prepared to defend their own “faith” and rely more on generalizations and slogans than careful reflection. Expose their error by asking questions that get them thinking.

You can direct conversations in a non-offensive way by using these three carefully selected questions:

1. To learn more about what the person believes, ask: What do you mean by that?

  • It clarifies the claims the person is making.

  • It elicits what the person thinks.

  • It provides a good conversation starter.

2. To make them defend their own views ask: How did you come to that conclusion?

  • It clarifies the reasons for the person's ideas.

  • It tells how the person thinks.

  • It makes him bear the "burden of proof" for his own claims.

3. To uncover a flaw, begin your question with: Can you clear this up for me?

Use this when reasons don't properly support the person's claim.

  • It challenges a weakness or contradiction in their view.

  • It uncovers a flaw with a question rather than a statement.

  • It encourages them to think through what they believe.

Also use the Columbo tactic to get out of the "hot seat." Shift from an argument to a fact-finding mode in the conversation. Take the pressure off yourself by using the first two Columbo questions. Close with "Let me think about that" and then research the issue before continuing the conversation.

Remember, there's no need for home runs each time you engage someone in conversation. You can be effective and respectful by learning more about the other person's views and do that without being argumentative - you're simply asking a few questions.

This is the kind of skill Greg Koukl will be teaching at Living Water Community Church in Harrisburg, PA on Saturday, April 4th, 2020.

I promise if you attend, Greg will help you become more confident and therefore effective in conversations with others who don't share your Christian convictions.

Register here: https://www.livingwatercc.com/tactics

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