Talk Less, Listen Better

At the start of his Washington novel, Shining City, longtime journalist Tom Rosenstiel writes about the power of listening. Here he’s describing Peter Rena, a Washington fixer, but he could be talking about journalism.

The man who taught Rena interrogation in the Army, Tommy Kee, called it the power of silence. “People get terrified when there are gaps, Pete, and you don’t fill them up. They take it as a sign of personal failure.” Tommy didn’t believe in intimidation or fire ants, sleep deprivation or water techniques—”all the enhanced interrogation bullshit.” He believed in what he called “fine listening”—looking for the parts that didn’t fit, “Taking time and taking notes,” asking a few right questions, then letting people expose the parts of themselves they don’t mean to. “Learn to control silence and you can control almost anyone.”

At the Washingtonian, almost all the good reporters and writers had learned to be good listeners. They understood the power of silence, of letting people think, of letting them talk.

Don’t try to show how smart you are. Listen better.

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