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Getting in the Driver’s Seat: The Columbo Tactic.

Get ready for the easiest and most basic way to engage someone about your Christian convictions while maintaining a balance between, “being sensitive, keeping the peace, preserving friendships, and not looking extreme.”[1] Welcome to the Columbo Tactic. Named after the television character known for his ostensibly bumbling yet razor-sharp questioning style, the Columbo Tactic is the method of asking questions to take the conversation where you want it to go. Koukl writes, “It might be called ‘the queen mother’ of all tactics… [a way] to stop a challenger in her tracks, turn the tables, and get her thinking…”[2]

There are three basic ways to use Columbo: To gather information, to reverse the burden of proof, and to lead the conversation in a specific direction.[3] The oft-used go-to Columbo question is, “What do you mean by that?” although there are many variations. Asking this question allows one to safeguard against misunderstanding and/or misrepresenting someone else’s view. This is of utmost importance since misrepresenting one’s point of view makes productive conversations very difficult. Asking, the question “also gives you time to size up the situation and gather your thoughts.”[4] That is, sometimes getting in the driver’s seat of the conversation requires some quick reflection to strategize about where to go next. Often, one’s answer to, “What do you mean by that?” helps discover a particular conversational path.

Koukl reminds us not to “be surprised… when your question, ‘What do you mean by that?’ is met with a blank stare. People don’t know what they mean much of the time. Often they’re merely repeating slogans.”[5] Herein lies another crucial aspect of the Columbo Tactic: getting people to think about their own points of view. The best way to do this is not to (as our older Christian compatriots are wont to do) run through a catalogue of memorized information. Rather, it is to invite someone to confront his own point of view by forcing him to explain how it works.[6] This particular aspect of Columbo is what makes it such an essential tool in the Christian’s belt.

Check back next week for Chapter 4: Columbo Step Two: The Burden of Proof

*Greg Koukl is Founder and President of Stand to Reason. Please do yourself a favor and buy his excellent book here!


[1] Greg Koukl, Tactics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 42.

[2] Ibid, 45.

[3] Ibid, 49.

[4] Ibid, 51.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “How does that work?” and “How does that make sense?” are both variations of “What do you mean by that?”