Jim Lehrer has come under fire after his perhaps overly relaxed approach to moderating during last week’s presidential debate.

It turns out that Lehrer has been advocating the “slow listening” interview technique for some time, and in this case it worked just as planned, permitting the candidates to rise (Romney) or fall (Obama) on their own.

Inc. magazine ran a piece in early September that describes Lehrer’s approach, and quotes from the book “Change-Friendly Leadership,” the author of which was coached by Lehrer in his interviewing technique (emphasis added):

Duncan: He urged me to ask a good question, listen attentively to the answer, and then count silently to five before asking another question. At first that suggestion seemed silly. 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 with sound, usually that of our own voice.

Lehrer: If you resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you’ll discover something almost magical. The other person will either expand on what he’s already said or he’ll go in a different direction. Either way, he’s expanding his response, and you get a clear view into his head and heart.

Duncan: Giving other people sufficient psychological breathing room seemed to work wonders. When I bridled my natural impatience to get on with it, they seemed more willing to disclose, explore, and even 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…

Last Friday, the Commission on Presidential Debates released a statement in reaction to the general panning of Jim Lehrer’s debate performance:

The format for the first and fourth presidential debates calls for six 15-minute segments on topics selected and announced in advance by the moderators.  After the moderator asks a question, the candidates each have two minutes to answer.  After their answers, the moderator’s job is to facilitate a conversation on the topic for the balance of the 15 minutes before moving to the next topic.  The Commission on Presidential Debates’ goal in selecting this format was to have a serious discussion of the major domestic and foreign policy issues with minimal interference by the moderator or timing signals.  Jim Lehrer implemented the format exactly as it was designed by the CPD and announced in July.

The context of the “Lehrer approach” given by Inc. Magazine shows that either the CPD did, or could have, known in advance what type of moderator he would be.


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