The key is to get out of the hot seat, but still stay engaged, deftly shifting control of the conversation back to you while shifting the spotlight—and the pressure—back on him.
By now you’re probably aware of the virtues of an STR approach named after the infamous Lieutenant Columbo. This bumbling and seemingly inept TV detective’s remarkable success was based on an innocent query: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
The key to Columbo is to go on the offensive in an inoffensive way with carefully selected questions that move the discussion along in an interactive way.
The most effective question you can ask in most circumstances is either a clarification question (“What do you mean by that?”), or a request for reasons (“How did you come to that conclusion?”).
There’s a further advantage of Columbo. I call it “getting out of the hot seat.”
Sometimes we’re afraid we may not have sufficient information or be quick enough on our feet to deal with a challenge. The fear of getting in over our heads is enough to keep us from saying anything at all.
We especially dread the possibility of some aggressive critic blasting us with arguments, opinions, or information we are not equipped to handle. This is where “Columbo” really shines. When someone else is coming on really strong with challenges you have no idea how to respond to, practice a little “conversational Aikido.” Use their aggressiveness to change the course of the conversation into something productive.
Here’s how. The minute you feel overmatched, buy yourself some time by shifting from persuasion mode to fact-finding mode. Say something like this:
Gosh, you certainly have some interesting points. 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 point, so would you take a moment to carefully explain your view and also your reasons for it to help me understand better? Then let me think about it.
Don’t try to argue your own case. Instead, ask probing clarification questions. Make sure you understand the ideas—write them out if you need to—then say the magic words: Let me think about it.
Once you say these words you free yourself from any obligation to respond in any way to his challenge. All the pressure is gone; you’ve already pleaded ignorance. Now in your own time, at your own pace, you can research the issue without stress or anxiety.
Start a notebook. Open a computer file and record the question from your notes. Then begin to outline an answer from your research. Review what you learned. Rehearse your response out loud a few times or role play with a friend. When the issue comes up again, you’ll be ready.
When you face a new challenge, start another entry and go through the same steps. You’ll be surprised how soon your expanding notebook will cover the basic issues. There aren’t that many.
The key here is to get out of the hot seat, but still stay engaged, deftly shifting control of the conversation back to you while shifting the spotlight—and the pressure—back on him.
If you take this approach, there are no losers; no egos are at stake. You’re simply asking the person to give you their best shot. It’s almost like saying, “Oh, you want to beat me up. Fine with me. Just do it slowly and thoroughly.”
Is there anybody who cannot do this? Is there anyone—even the most retiring, shy, bashful, skittish, or reserved—who cannot say, “It’s okay if you beat me up. Just do it slowly and thoroughly.” This little technique will allow the most timid to tame the most terrible. It really works.
Don’t miss the deeper lesson: You don’t have to be the expert on every subject. In fact, you can be effective even when you know very little if you use questions wisely.
You don’t have to hit home runs in conversations with others. Just getting up to bat will do. And your first two Columbo questions—“What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?”—will help you get in the game.