The Motto of Every Good Interviewer Is STFU

By Barnard Law Collier

That paragraph about listening posted yesterday from Tom Rosenstiel’s novel, Shining City, is among the truest I’ve ever read about good reporting and interviewing.

The motto of every good interviewer is STFU—and listen.

To listen carefully to what is being said to you, or others, including all the body language and inflections you are able to recognize, is the heart and soul of good interviewing.

Tom Rosenstiel’s words bear repeating:

“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.”

For years I’ve studied the fear and best uses of silence. I’ve noticed that the fear of silence is intensified in many schoolrooms in America, including in universities. A quick answer is known to surpass a slower, more thoughtful one. The reflexive raise of the hand is rewarded with better grades, even if the answers are, as my old civics teacher used to say, “The unctuous repetition of the obvious.”

One of the sweetest sounds an interviewer will ever hear is the hum of an interviewee’s mental gears meshing, and the click of lights going on in their eyes. What is happening in the quietness is not the re-chewing of old cabbage but something fresher, and usually more original, and either more or less truthful.

It is almost never a good idea to make a fast comeback to what an interviewee has just said. In cases of smart people, the quickness may be regarded as insulting.

Far better to foster in the interviewee’s mind the reality that you have listened with attention to their words and that their words were rich enough to require time for digestion and evaluation.

If there are any silences in an interview, experience indicates that it’s best to allow the interviewee, not the interviewer, to break the silence. Invoke STFU.

This approach works well with video; but in commercial operations, where there is little time for silence, because silence costs money, silence and its benefits are often lost.

“Fine listening” requires concentration and focus on what is expressed by the interviewee’s body, spirit, and soul, regardless of rank, reputation, or party affiliation.

Sedatephobia—meaning “silent, or sleeping, or dead” with Phobos, the Greek God of fear, or dread, or death—is rampant among talking heads and reporters on TV, video, and much radio, as well as in print media.

After two or three seconds of silence, these interviewers start to feel that something’s amiss. They must hear their own voices again or the silence will become unbearable.

Sedatephobia harkens back to early radio in the 1920s through the 1950s, when the hiss static of radio silence gave dial twisters the opening to tune across the emptiness to another station. Radio silence became a danger, and thus was born the relentless yapetyyapetyyapertyyap along with noisy music and background sound effects that became the common AM dial sound. As long as there was noise, people knew the tuner was not in an empty segment of the dial.

It’s true that a lot of in-depth research is required before going into an interview. Yet it can sometimes fill one’s head with preconceptions that may twist the interviewer’s depiction into a melange of others’ perspectives and opinions and, perhaps, skewed observations.

In an interview of a subject worth a full portrait, I find it useful to ask them for a list of their closest friends, and to get an agreement that they will call these friends and encourage them to talk to me. Most did. Friends were all far more poignant, revealing, honest, forthcoming, and funny than almost any of the “enemies,” whom I managed to find on my own.

For me, an “interview” with a practiced and skillful interviewer is a semi-sacred experience, for both sides.

An interviewer is permitted to enter the mind of somebody worthwhile knowing, and quite literally to play around. The interview is among the most intimate relations one may ever be involved in with another person. The best interviewers are respectful and they “listen” with every sense they’ve got.
Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Terrific column.

  2. Well said, as always.

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