When Interviewing, Allowing a Few Seconds of Silence Often Leads to Better Answers

By Barnard Law Collier

To listen masterfully to the human voice is a gift that many journalists may think they have but don’t.

For several decades I’ve watched how dozens of reporters listen. By far the most significant trait is they turn off their ears before the speakers finish what they are saying.

They will later admit that they stop listening early in order to craft a reply to what they’ve so far heard so that they can have a fast comeback when the speaker concludes. A quick response indicates that the reporter is smart and well-prepared. A delayed response signals dumbness.

Why the rush? Many working journalists are educated in western world classrooms where to be first to raise their hand with the “right” answer is deemed a sign of brightness.

Some journalists whom I’ve watched and listened to are aware that some of the best stuff may come at the end of a long ramble. They give speakers time to finish completely all their ideas, and then allow a few seconds of silence to precede their response.

This pause is a sign of respect for the person speaking, who then may feel that the interviewer is actually thinking about what was just said. This hope for real understanding often produces more honest expressions from the interviewee.

There is a misconception that good interviewers are mostly good at asking questions. Equally important is to listen intensely not only to what someone says but how they say it, with all the vocal and bodily inflections, cadences, and implications.

To ask is to suggest. To listen is to begin to understand.

Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.

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