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What Romney and Obama can learn from Jim Lehrer in tonight's presidential debate

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At this point, Jim made a sound like a buzzer going off on a TV game show. “Wait a second,” he said, raising his hands in a “time out” gesture. “You said you ask a question, the other person answers, then you ask another question.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I said. “The purpose of interviews is to gather information. The only way to get answers is to ask questions.”

Then Jim laid some of his Texas wisdom on me. “Don’t be too quick to believe that the only way to get answers is to ask questions,” he said. “Another way is to listen slowly.”

Jim urged me to ask a good question, listen attentively to the answer, and then count silently to five before asking another question. I argued that five seconds would seem like an eternity to wait after someone responds to a question. Then it occurred to me. Of course it would seem like an eternity, because our natural tendency is to fill a void of silence with sound, usually that of our own voice.

“If you’ll resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you’ll discover something almost magical,” Jim said. “The other person will either elaborate on what he’s already said, or he’ll go in a different direction. Either way, he’s expanding his response and you’ll get a clearer view into his head and heart.”

Giving other people sufficient psychological breathing room – even those who weren’t very eager to talk with a reporter – seemed to work wonders. When I bridled my natural impatience to “get on with it,” they seemed more willing to disclose, explore, and even to be a bit vulnerable. When I treated the interview more as a conversation with a purpose than as a sterile interrogation, the tone of the exchange softened. It was now just two people talking, not a news reporter mining for data like a dentist extracting teeth.

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