Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions; A Book Review

We usually see debates like fencing or boxing: strike and counterstrike. Nothing is gained, just opinions playing to your tribe rather than making people think. 

Some, like me, don’t get into these types of discussions because it’s exhausting. What if you can actually learn something and make the other person think through their claims?

That’s what the book we’re looking at does. Tactics can be used in all spheres of life, not just political or religious debates. It’s active listening and can be used to learn more about your friends and work. It can be used to examine your own arguments. 

It’s been recently revised, and I haven’t read that one yet. My notes are from the 1st edition. 

Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions

by Gregory Koukl

“In a world increasingly indifferent to Christian truth, followers of Christ need to be equipped to communicate with those who do not speak their language or accept their source of authority. Gregory Koukl demonstrates how to get in the driver’s seat, keeping any conversation moving with thoughtful, artful diplomacy. You’ll learn how to maneuver comfortably and graciously through the minefields, stop challengers in their tracks, turn the tables and—most importantly—get people thinking about Jesus. Soon, your conversations will look more like diplomacy than D-Day. Drawing on extensive experience defending Christianity in the public square, Koukl shows you how to:

– Initiate conversations effortlessly

– Present the truth clearly, cleverly, and persuasively

– Graciously and effectively expose faulty thinking

– Skillfully manage the details of dialogue

– Maintain an engaging, disarming style even under attack

Tactics provides the game plan for communicating the compelling truth about Christianity with confidence and grace.”

Greg, author, podcaster, and founder of Stand To Reason at str.org, has a rule when using his tactics. I have broken a rule and just about every commentator or political debate I’ve seen break.

“I have a general rule: If anyone in the discussion gets angry, you lose. Here’s what I mean. When you get angry, you look belligerent. You raise your voice, you scowl. You may even begin to break into the conversation before the other person is finished. Not only is this bad manners, but it begins to look like your ideas are not as good as you thought they were. Now you must resort to interruption and intimidation. You begin to replace persuasion with power. This is not a good strategy. It is never really convincing, even if you are successful in bullying the other person into silence.”

Then he explains why arguing or listening to arguments is good. Not screaming matches but more like discussions. 

“Generally, sorting things out is not a solitary enterprise. It’s best done in the company of others who dispute our claims and offer competing ideas. In short, we argue. Sometimes we are silent partners, listening, not talking, but the process is going on in our minds just the same. The ability to argue well is vital for clear thinking. That’s why arguments are good things. 

Arguing is a virtue because it helps us determine what is true and discard what is false. This is not rationalism, a kind of idolatry of the mind that places man’s thinking at the center of the universe. Rather, it’s the proper use of one of the faculties God has given us to understand him and the world he has made.”

Here’s how he gets started.

“I encourage you to consider the strategy I use when God opens a door of opportunity for me. I pray quickly for wisdom, then ask myself this: What one thing can I say in this circumstance, what one question can I ask, what seed can I plant that will get the other person thinking? Then I simply try to put a stone in the person’s shoe.”

Peter Falk as Columbo

He does this by what he calls Columbo Tactics. They’re three steps where you gather information, reverse the burden of proof, and use questions to make a point. The questions are variations of “What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?”

Then you shut up and listen. People define everything differently today, so when they say something, they can mean something completely different from what you’re thinking. 

“The Columbo tactic is a disarming way to go on the offensive with carefully selected questions that productively advance the conversation. This approach has many advantages. Questions can be excellent conversation starters. They are interactive by nature, inviting others to participate in dialogue. They are neutral, protecting you from getting “preachy,” helping you make headway without stating your case. Questions buy valuable time. 

Finally, they are essential to keeping you in control of the conversation. Next we learned there is a specific purpose for the questions we ask. The first purpose of Columbo is to gain information. The question, “What do you mean by that?” (or some variation) accomplishes that end. It clarifies the person’s meaning so that you don’t misunderstand or misrepresent it. It also immediately puts you in control of the conversation. This question does something else that’s very important. It forces the other person to think more carefully about precisely what he does mean when he tosses out a challenge.”

In a world of memes, how do you disarm them?

“Many challenges to Christianity thrive on vague generalities and forceful but vacuous slogans. How do we help others to be more explicit about the reasons for their views? How do we keep them intellectually honest? The second step of Columbo will help. I call it “reversing the burden of proof.” The burden of proof is the responsibility someone has to defend or give evidence for his view. 

Generally, the rule can be summed up this way: Whoever makes the claim bears the burden. The key here is not to allow yourself to be thrust into a defensive position when the other person is making the claim. It’s not your duty to prove him wrong. It’s his duty to prove his view. Let me give you an example of what I mean.”

Greg describes that people’s arguments are like a house. After you read the quote, examine your own beliefs and see where you need to shore up your “house” weakness.

“For too long we have let others contrive fanciful challenges and then sit back and watch us squirm. Those days are over. No more free rides. If they tell the story, let them defend it. They need to give an argument. An argument is a specific kind of thing. Think of an argument like a simple house, a roof supported by walls. The roof is the conclusion, and the walls are the supporting ideas. 

By testing the walls, we can see if they are strong enough to keep the roof from tumbling down. If the walls are solid, the conclusion rests securely on its supporting structure. If the walls collapse, the roof goes flat and the argument is defeated.”

“An argument is different from an assertion, though. An assertion simply states a point. An argument gives supporting reasons why the point should be taken seriously. The reasons, then, become the topic of mutual discussion or analysis. But if there are no reasons, there’s little to discuss. Opinions by themselves are not proof. Intelligent belief requires reasons. Roofs are useless when they are on the ground. No one can live in a house without walls. In the same way, an assertion without evidence is not very useful.”

Occasionally, we’ll get caught off guard. Greg goes into how to regroup.

“If you find yourself stymied in a discussion, you may be looking for an argument that isn’t there. It may be a bedtime story or an unsubstantiated assertion. Simply ask yourself, “Did he give me an argument, or did he just give me an opinion?” If the latter, then say, “Well, that’s an interesting point of view, but what’s your argument? How did you come to that conclusion? Why should I take your point seriously? Please take a moment and give me some of your reasons.” 

When he answers you, be alert to the differences between what is possible, what is plausible, and what is likely, given the evidence. There are only a few exceptions to the burden-of-proof rule, and they are usually obvious. 

We are not obligated, for example, to prove our own existence, to defend self-evident truths (e.g., denial of square circles), or to justify the basic reliability of our senses. The way things appear to be are probably the way they actually are unless we have good reason to believe otherwise.4 This principle keeps us alive every day. It doesn’t need defending.”

Two more quotes, and I’ll wrap this up.

“There’s a further advantage of Columbo. I call it “getting out of the hot seat.” Sometimes we’re afraid we do not have enough information or are not quick enough on our feet to keep up with a fast talker in an intense discussion. The fear of getting in over our heads is enough to keep us from saying anything at all. We especially dread the possibility of being embarrassed by some aggressive critic blasting us with arguments, opinions, or information we are not equipped to handle. In this circumstance, the tactical approach really shines. 

Columbo questions help you easily manage the conversation even when you sense you are overmatched. First, don’t feel under pressure to immediately answer every question asked or every point made, especially when someone else is coming on strong. Instead, practice a little conversational aikido. Let them keep coming at you, but use their aggressive energy to your advantage. 

The minute you feel overmatched, buy yourself some time by shifting from persuasion mode to fact-finding mode. Don’t try to argue your own case yet. Instead, ask probing clarification questions and ask for reasons (your first two Columbo questions). 

Say something like this: It sounds like you know a lot more about this than I do, and you have some interesting ideas. The problem is, this is all new information for me. I wonder if you could do me a favor. I really want to understand your points, but you need to slow down so I can get them right. Would you take a moment to carefully explain your view and also your reasons for it to help me understand better? 

These questions show you are interested in taking the other person’s view seriously. They also buy you valuable time. Make sure you understand the ideas. Write them down if you need to. When all your questions have been answered, end the conversation by saying the magic words: “Let me think about it. Maybe we can talk more later.” 

These words — Let me think about it — are like magic because once you say them, you free yourself from any obligation to respond further at the moment. All the pressure is gone because you have already pleaded ignorance. You have no obligation to answer, refute, or reply once you have admitted you are outgunned and need to give the issue more thought.”

Then, later, you actually think about what was discussed. You’ll have thought it through.

“Next, on your own, at your leisure, when the pressure is off, do your homework. Research the issue — maybe even enlisting others in the process — and come back better prepared next time. You might even want to start a notebook. Open a computer file and record the question and its details from your notes. 

Then begin to craft a response based on your research. Finally, review what you have written. Rehearse your response out loud a few times, or role-play with a friend. If your discussion was just part of a chance meeting, you may not be able to revisit the topic with the same person. But when the issue comes up with someone else, you’ll be ready. You’ll own that question.”

That’s just the groundwork, the foundation it is all built on. Section Two goes into individual tactics for different situations like when you’re getting steamrolled by questions. 

It’s happened to me on Facebook, and the guys said I hadn’t thought it through because I wasn’t answering fast enough. I learned a lesson, no arguing on Facebook. 

Privately in chat or messenger is best. 

I gave the book 5 stars, and the new edition has a chapter on mini tactics like “Arguing with Jesus.” 

Get it so you can understand others and your own beliefs and arguments for them.

2 thoughts on “Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions; A Book Review

  1. Pingback: Dealing With Experts | A Ronin's Journey

  2. Pingback: How To Engage Online or In Person | A Ronin's Journey

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