The Columbo Tactic for Advocates
Helpful Traits from the Bumbling Detective
My wife and I started watching the 1970s detective series Columbo over the holidays. I have been using what Greg Koukl calls “The Columbo Tactic” for a few years now (thanks to his book apologetics book Tactics), and I figured the TV show might be worthwhile. Columbo did not disappoint. Watching his approach in action has been very instructive. It turns out Columbo’s method applies even better to discussions about abuse than to apologetics. Why? Because Columbo isn’t having intellectual discussions. He’s trying to catch criminals. Talking with abusers and their enablers have a lot of similarities.
I will share some of Columbo’s traits that transfer to discussions about abuse, traits that advocates for abuse survivors can use with wisdom, discernment and practice. The best way to digest this would be watching an episode or two before or after reading these descriptions. But assuming some of you haven’t seen Columbo, it will help to have a bit of a picture in your mind, so I’m sharing a lengthier description from Koukl. If you have watched Columbo before, or plan to watch, you can skip the quote.
The Columbo tactic is named after Lieutenant Columbo, a brilliant TV detective with a clever way of catching a crook. The inspector arrives on the scene in complete disarray, his hair an unkempt mop, his trench coat rumpled beyond repair, his cigar wedged tightly between stubby fingers. Columbo’s pencil has gone missing again, so his notepad is useless until he bums a pen off a bystander. To all appearances Columbo is bumbling, inept, and completely harmless…After poking around the crime scene, scratching his head, and muttering to himself, Lieutenant Columbo makes his trademark move. “I got a problem,” he says as he rubs his furrowed brow. There’s something about this thing that bothers me.” He pauses a moment to ponder his predicament, then turns to his suspect. “You seem like a very intelligent person. Maybe you can clear it up for me. Do you mind if I ask you a question?” The first query is innocent enough (if the lieutenant seems threatening, he'll scare off his prey), and for the moment he seems satisfied. As he turns on his heel to leave, though, he stops himself mid-stride. Something has just occurred to him. He turns back to the scene, raises his index finger, and says, “Just one more thing.” But “just one more” question leads to another. And another. Soon they come relentlessly, question after question, to the point of distraction and, ultimately, annoyance. “I'm sorry,” Columbo says to his beleaguered suspect. “I know I’m making a pest of myself. It’s because I keep asking these questions. “But I’ll tell ya,” he shrugs, “I can’t help myself. It’s a habit.” And this is a habit you want to get into. The key to the Columbo tactic is to go on the offensive in an inoffensive way by using carefully selected questions to productively advance the conversation. Simply put, never make a statement, at least at first, when a question will do the job.1
Koukl adapts Columbo’s habit of catching killers through questions to the task of apologetics. As I’ve written before, talking about abuse in today’s Christian landscape is an apologetic conversation. One reason for that is the differing worldviews that get exposed by differences over power, gender, race, and harm (see here, here and here). Another reason for that, closer to the original Columbo tactic, is that people don’t want to be caught. Not just caught believing something untrue, but caught being untrue. Like Columbo’s suspects, the threat of being caught puts people on the defensive.
Columbo’s suspects attempt a range of behaviors to throw Columbo of the scent: manipulation through flattery, creating false trails and red herrings, aggressively questioning Columbo’s competence, and covering up damning evidence. But Columbo is never deterred. Here are some characteristics that stand out from watching him work:
He is not afraid. I don’t know about you, but talking with a suspected murderer sounds pretty scary, and that’s what Columbo spends most of his time doing. The show highlights Columbo’s dialogical investigation method. Like any whodunit, there are crime scene details, but unlike detectives such as Sherlock Holmes or Adrian Monk or Shawn Spencer, Columbo focuses his efforts on talking directly with the suspect, and that takes guts. Especially given the next characteristic.
He is almost always on the suspect’s turf. We’re only in season 3, but so far the show has never, not once, shown a police station, interrogation room, or any location that could be described as giving Columbo a home field advantage. Can you imagine talking with a suspected murderer in his or her home or office? And yet how often is that the case for advocates of church abuse victims? A pastor’s study; an elder’s home; or really anywhere in a church building. While I’m not recommending 1:1 application of Columbo’s willingness to give up the safety of even neutral locations—unlike laypeople with spiritual leaders, he is a police official with legal authority—his comfortability in the suspect’s element is inspiring.
He is never in a hurry. In many abuse conversations that I hear about as a counselor and advocate, people desperately want leaders to see that their own behavior, or that of their fellow leader, is sinful and harmful. We want the harm to stop. We want to prevent others from being harmed. We want accountability and justice in order to help survivors heal. But by their very nature, abusive leaders are resistant to alternative views. Arguments that directly attack will almost always backfire. So Columbo never accuses the suspect while investigating. He doesn’t go on the attach even when it’s clear the suspect is lying and conniving. He is patient, and his patience allows him to gather information, earn the suspect’s trust, find flaws in the suspect’s alibi, etc.
This point deserves a big caveat. Columbo is a homicide detective investigating crimes already committed. If he was investigating a serial killer, I hope Columbo would pick up the pace. In such cases, patience is not a virtue. When people are in danger of further harm, when there is risk of continued violence, what looks like the wisdom of patience is really the foolishness of fear. In contrast, this Columbo trait of patience is more for conversations with Christians where harm is not immanent.
He resists manipulation. In his dialogues with murderers Columbo feels no pressure to follow misdirecting observations or manipulative questions. A murder suspect might directly ask Columbo, “Do you really think I killed ______?” There are many ways to answer that question: yes, no, maybe, I don’t know, I’m still investigating, etc. Some TV police investigators might use an assertive cliche like “I’m the one asking the questions here, bub.” But Columbo doesn’t need to overcompensate. He simply doesn’t feel compelled to answer inauthentic questions. He might ignore such a question, ask a completely different question of his own, make an observation, or use one of his stock phrases, “You know what bothers me? It’s this ________.”
He is willing to walk away. This one can be painful to consider given the unfair imbalance when leaders hold on to their rightness like poop on the bottom of one’s shoe. But when faced with a suspect’s counterargument Columbo frequently says, “You know, you’re probably right.” It’s part of his patient approach. He knows that if he can keep gathering information, eventually the murderer’s house of cards will crumble. So he will surrender a particular point and walk away, knowing he can come back again later with more questions and observations that will eventually expose the suspect’s inconsistencies. This trait is especially needed when there is resistance and reluctance to seeing darkness in one’s leader(s) and church/org community. That resistance rarely resolves in one conversation. Like Columbo, it takes a willingness to walk away and return many times, as one is able.
These are just some of the traits that have stood out to me watching Columbo at work. They fall short, as I wrote about here, of the watching experience itself. I highly recommend watching a few episodes of Columbo and imagine how you might translate his approach to difficult conversations with religious leaders.
To see an example of how The Columbo Tactic can be used for abuse-related issues, see this imagined dialogue on the question of submission to church leaders.
Is there another show, or movie, or book that has given you additional ways of looking at questions and conversations about abuse? Have you found inspiration in any other fictional characters? If so, who, and how have they inspired you?
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Greg Koukl, Tactics ( ), pp. 46-47.