One of the most poignant concepts I learned in law school was the idea that silence abhors a vacuum. The professor’s point was clear. When cross examining a witness shut up after asking your question. The witness, nervous anyway, will become even more uncomfortable with the silence in the room and inevitably start talking – at which point you may learn more than you ever expected from your question. I think the same principle works in everyday life, whether interviewing a guest on a radio program, talking to a friend, or even arguing with a customer “service” representative on the telephone.
People just don’t like silence.
But effective interviewing requires one to shut up and listen.
Listening is a skill that we’re failing to teach, whether in law school, journalism or life in general.
The ability to listen, truly listen, is a rare commodity these days. It drives me nuts to listen to someone interviewing another person, and during the course of the interview droning on with ever-increasingly lengthy questions, or questions framed in the manner of talking about yourself instead of the guest. Just ask the question, shut up and listen. You might be surprised at what you’ll hear.
Good story tellers inevitably will get around to telling their story. But for those who are reticent for any or no reason, they will eventually start telling their stories if only given the opportunity.
Which is where silence is so effective.
Speaking of silence, we’ve had no television service for the past 96 hours. Except for the occasional withdrawal for instant information, such as weather forecasts, I really haven’t missed the television.
Other than missing a football game which I would have watched sporadically, tuning in to the local stations in time to get the weather forecast (which I could and do online, but miss the more in-depth forecast I get on television), I really haven’t missed television.
The next time you are watching an interview on television, or listening to one on the radio, pay attention to the interviewer. See if he allows the guest to talk, or whether the interviewer is all about the interviewer. In other words, learn to listen by listening to how others fail to listen.
Silence. People can’t stand it. Yet, it’s so powerful.