November 19, 2008
Listening for Tension
[Gross] avoids the common pitfall of highbrow public broadcasting-style interviewers: giving in to the temptation to show off how much she knows and how smart she is in the set-up to the questions.
What she does instead, and what she shows brilliantly in this interview [with William Ayers], is: she listens, and she thinks. In my experience, 99% of the difference between a good interviewer (or a good panel moderator) and a bad one lies in what that person is doing while the interviewee talks. If the interviewer is mainly using that time to move down to the next item on the question list, the result will be terrible. But if the interviewer is listening, then he or she is in position to pick up leads (“Now, that’s an intriguing idea, tell us more about…”), to look for interesting tensions (“You used to say X, but now it sounds like…”), to sum up and give shape to what the subject has said (“It sounds as if you’re suggesting…”). And, having paid the interviewee the respect of actually listening to the comments, the interviewer is also positioned to ask truly tough questions without having to bluster or insult.
If you have this standard in mind — is the interviewer really listening? and thinking? — you will be shocked to see how rarely broadcast and on-stage figures do very much of either. But listen to this session by Gross to see how the thing should be done.
Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Ayers is here.