Take a Tip from Columbo

Take a Tip from Columbo

by Gregory Koukl

Have you ever taken a verbal beating when trying to talk about Jesus? If so, try this simple approach to stop challengers mid-punch and make them take a close look at their gloves. It’s called the Columbo tactic.

Lieutenant Columbo was the 1970s bumbling TV detective whose remarkable crime-solving success was based on a simple inquiry: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

The key to this strategy is to shift the burden of proof to the other person by asking carefully selected questions. It can even be played out Columbo style—halting, head-scratching, and apparently harmless.

The Columbo tactic is most powerful when you have a goal in mind. If you see some weakness in another’s view, instead of plainly pointing out the error, expose it by asking a question in a disarming way.

Though there are literally hundreds of ways to do this, the Columbo tactic offers tremendous advantages. For one, it’s interactive, inviting the other person to participate in dialogue. It’s good to use on the job, too, because no preaching is involved. This approach allows you to make good headway in presenting and defending your view without actually stating your whole case. More importantly, a carefully placed question shifts the burden of proof to the other person where it may belong.

Burden of Proof

Christians tend to listen politely or take the burden on themselves to refute every fantasy a skeptic can spin out of thin air. Why let challengers off so easily, though, when they’re the ones making the claim?

On a popular secular radio program in Los Angeles I stated the case against evolution. When a caller tried to use the big bang theory to argue against a Creator, I pointed out the big bang worked in my favor because any big bang needs a big “bang maker.”

The caller disagreed. The big bang doesn’t need God, he claimed. Then leading off with the phrase “One could say . . .,” he spun a lengthy science fiction tale for the audience on how everything could come from nothing.

“You’re right,” I responded. “‘One could say’ anything he wants. But giving good reasons why we should believe the story you just told is another thing altogether.” It wasn’t my job to disprove his fairy tale. It was his job to demonstrate why anyone should take his musings seriously.

Remember, the one making the claim shoulders the burden of proof. For far too long skeptics have contrived fanciful challenges, then sat back and watched Christians squirm. If someone tells the story, it’s his job to defend it, not my job to refute it.

Three Key Questions

Sometimes when I’m not sure how to proceed, I ask open-ended questions. The most effective open-ended question I’ve found is some variation of “How do you know?” Kevin Bywater of Summit Ministries has developed a three-step formula that can keep the dialogue going with even the most belligerent antagonists.

The first step is asking a clarification question: “What do you mean by that?” This question accomplishes several things. First, it immediately engages the challenger in an interactive way. Second, it’s friendly because you’ve expressed a real interest in knowing more about the other’s view. Third, it forces him to think carefully—maybe for the first time—about exactly what he believes. Fourth, it gives you valuable information about the roots of the person’s thinking. So pay careful attention to the response.

Here’s the second question: “How did you come to that conclusion?” This is a gentler variation of “Where did you get your facts?” Though it’s similar in content, it has a kinder tone, assuming the critic has not just made an unsubstantiated claim, but has actually done some thinking.

The additional data puts you in a better position to assess and respond to the person’s view. You now know what he thinks, and you also know how he thinks. He’s also tipped you off about the way he reasons, giving you valuable information on how to proceed if you choose to.

I say, “If you choose to” because you may detect that it’s not the time to move forward, nor are you automatically obliged to. Depending on your personality you’ll face the temptation to be over-eager or under-eager. Remember, you don’t always have to hit a home run. Sometimes just getting on base will do, and the first two questions accomplish that.

If you do proceed, your third question suggests an alternative. Ask, “Have you ever considered . . .,” and then finish the sentence in a way appropriate to the issue. Offer an option that gently challenges the person’s beliefs, possibly exploiting a weakness you uncovered in the answers to your first two queries.

The tone of these three questions is probing, but still amicable. They also employ the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Keep in mind that if you ask these questions you must be willing to have that person ask the same questions of you.

Christians don’t have to be experts in everything. In fact, God can use believers effectively despite a lack of knowledge if we learn to ask good questions.

When someone says to you, “The Bible’s been changed so many times,” or “No one can know the truth about religion,” or “All religions are basically the same,” you don’t have to retreat in silence. Instead, simply raise your eyebrows and say, “Oh? What do you mean by that?” and then, “How did you come to that conclusion?”

You might be surprised to find that many critics aren’t prepared to defend their “faith,” or lack of it, when asked some basic questions. As Lt. Columbo demonstrated so well—asking the right question frequently settles the case.

Greg Koukl is the founder and president of Stand to Reason and hosts his own radio talk show advocating clear-thinking Christianity and defending the Christian worldview. He is the author of Relativism—Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Baker) and over 100 articles, many of which can be found at www.str.org.