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

Jim Lehrer will moderate tonight's presidential debate with the same thoughtful tone he instilled in me as a young journalist. With Washington gridlocked, our next president will need that same spirit of inquiry and dialogue. Mitt Romney and President Obama should start by taking a cue from Jim.

By Rodger Dean Duncan / October 3, 2012

Stand-ins for moderator Jim Lehrer, Mitt Romney, and President Obama run through a rehearsal for tonight's presidential debate at the University of Denver, Oct. 2. Op-ed contributor Rodger Dean Duncan says: '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.'

David Goldman/AP

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Liberty, Mo.

Millions of Americans will tune in to tonight’s presidential debate. Most of them, it’s fair to say, are primarily interested in how President Obama and Mitt Romney will handle themselves. I’ll watch for that, too.

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But my primary focus will be on Jim Lehrer of PBS, who will be moderating his twelfth presidential debate. I’ll be eager to see how Jim practices what he taught me more than 40 years ago – the art of the interview.

I was a young investigative reporter and political writer for the Dallas Times Herald, and Mr. Lehrer was my editor. On my first day he walked over to my desk in the newsroom and asked me to tell him how I did interviews. He had read many of my stories, but had never actually seen me conduct an interview.

I told him that when I got an assignment I first developed a list of possible sources and then drafted a short inventory of pump-primer questions. “Okay,” he said. “Then what?” I still wasn’t sure what he was getting at. So I continued. “Well, after some brief small talk I’ll launch into the interview. I’ll ask a question, my source will give an answer, then I’ll ask another question.”

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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