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

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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.

Of course, Lehrer won’t be able to practice fully the interview pause in tonight’s debates. The fast-paced, sound bite-driven format of televised debates isn’t conducive to five-second silences, but I have no doubt Jim will moderate the discourse with the same thoughtful tone he instilled in me as a young journalist. Today's political leaders could use more of that tone.

In January one of the candidates in this week’s debate will be sworn in as president. To lead effectively, he’ll be smart to take a cue from Jim. He should talk so people will listen, and he should listen so people will talk. Engaging people in that way is the only path to real dialogue.

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