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.

David Goldman/AP
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.'

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.

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.

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.

Of all the things leaders of change do, talking is among the most visible and certainly among the most influential. Whether you are a prominent CEO or the head of the PTA at your child’s school, there are four critical orientations to sound leadership. They combine to help people to engage each other in ways that produce breakthrough results. Approach any leadership role by being:

• Think-friendly. Adopt a growth mindset that you are capable of solving problems in fresh ways. Exercise curiosity by asking smart questions to explore and discover. Challenge your own conclusions to ensure that your assumptions are valid. Make appropriate connections that lead to a richer mix of possibilities.

• Talk-friendly. Develop and use dialogue and appreciative inquiry. Listen to learn rather than to outwit and overpower. Exercise persuasion and influence rather than position and authority. Be willing to be influenced rather than assuming that the views of others should always be subservient to yours. 

• Trust-friendly. Behave in ways that earn trust. Extend trust to others. Personify trust in all you do. In every relationship, make trust first so it will last.

• Team-friendly. Work with people in ways that foster genuine collaboration. Remember that we live in an interdependent world where progress (and even survival) is about mutual reliance and overlapping interests.

That spirit of sincere inquiry and cooperation not only makes good leaders, it finds solutions. With Washington gridlocked, America divided, and budget deficits looming, the next American president will need that spirit of constructive collaboration more than ever. To start, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama should look to Lehrer’s example tonight.

Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan is founder and CEO of Duncan Worldwide, which specializes in leadership and organizational performance. He is the author of “Change-Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance.”

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