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How to Debate: What Lieutenant Columbo Teaches About Arguing

How to Debate: What Lieutenant Columbo Teaches About Arguing

At age 14, I was introduced to a debate tactic I never forgot. Called the “Columbo Tactic,” this strategy allowed me to challenge any view I found even remotely illogical, all the while keeping me from having to meticulously, painstakingly articulate my own position. I first heard about this debate method in Gregory Koukl’s Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, a Christian apologetics book, but the tactic is applicable to arguments of all types.

What Is the Columbo Tactic?

The Columbo Tactic is named after Lieutenant Columbo, a 1970s crime show detective. As Koukl explains, Columbo was known for his rumpled appearance, pocket notepad, and persistent inability to find a pencil. After surveying a crime scene for a few minutes, Columbo would rub his forehead, looking confused. “There’s something I don’t quite understand,” he might say. He’d turn to his suspect. “You look smart. Would you mind if I asked you a question?”

That single question would turn into another question then another. “Just one more thing,” Columbo liked to say, scratching his head. By asking careful questions, Columbo would gather the information he needed to eventually crack the case.

While Columbo wasn’t necessarily involved in ideological discussions, he teaches us something significant about debate: Namely, playing offense doesn’t have to look like offense. The Columbo Tactic builds on the concept of curiosity, encouraging its users to begin logical disagreements by asking pointed questions. Eventually, those questions can help an opponent see the weaknesses within his views.

What Does the Columbo Tactic Look Like Practically?

Granted, the Columbo Tactic doesn’t fit every kind of disagreement. We’d probably be a little hard-pressed to find a place for it in formal, structured debate, and it’s probably not the best method for arguing with a spouse. But, within the context of casual ideological disagreements, the Columbo Tactic works wonderfully.

Think about this: Suppose you’re flying on an airplane for a business trip, and the outspoken man next to you says something you disagree with. For example, let’s say he sees three crying toddlers in the aisle and makes a derogatory comment about stay-at-home moms. You think it’s important to challenge him, but you’re not sure how to do it without causing a problem. How do you disagree gently?

Enter the Columbo Tactic. You don’t have to say you disagree (more on this later); just ask directed questions to gain information and show him the flaws of his argument. Start broadly (“What has been your experience with stay-at-home moms?”) and get more specific as he answers (“If we don’t have stay-at-home moms, how should we provide moral education?”). As you ask more questions, you’ll get him thinking. He’ll have to process his own viewpoint, and—who knows—he might see something he hasn’t seen before.

Benefits of the Columbo Tactic

The Columbo Tactic shines in its unassuming nature. People usually don’t feel threatened by an open-ended, non-hostile question. They just answer it. After all, who doesn’t want to enlighten someone else with their wisdom?

When the Columbo Tactic is used well, it doesn’t pose a threat to the opponent. In fact, the opposite will probably occur: Usually not even realizing a disagreement has begun, our opponent will be flattered that we’re taking the time and energy to ask specific questions.

Because of its gentle approach, the Columbo Tactic puts the burden of proof—the idea that a person making a statement has an obligation to prove that statement—on our debate opponent. We’re asking questions, not making claims, so we have nothing (explicitly) to defend with astounding argumentation or terrific remembrance of specific data. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn how to defend our beliefs, but it can take a lot of the stress out of a debate.

Similarly, because thinking can rely heavily on intuition, we might sense a logical flaw before having the words to explain it. The Columbo Tactic lets us use questions to poke at that flaw, buying ourselves time to think about the matter more.

Columbo in Action

I’ve used Columbo in many situations of life, from talking with a coworker during a slow shift to challenging an agnostic I met while flying home from Maryland. Each time, the tactic has allowed me to gently prod at the views of those around me, helping others think through their beliefs and see the weak spots in their arguments.

It takes a little practice to get good at asking questions, and we have to keep our minds sharp and curious to do so. Still, learning the Columbo Tactic is well worth our effort. It’s a simple technique to explore dividing topics with others and thoughtfully change minds.

Image credit: Pixabay-Prawny, NC



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  • Avatar
    Raymond E Burby
    April 10, 2023, 11:54 pm

    Interesting concept and approach. Definitely worth the try.

  • Avatar
    John Brett
    April 11, 2023, 2:15 pm

    Agree. A very interesting and worthwhile tactic to learn and master.


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