I noted recently that you could go surprisingly far as an interviewer simply by sitting quietly and forcing the other person to break the silence. (Yes, I do realize that this is at odds with my previous endorsement of the Jon Stewart / David Frost interview approach. Different circumstances, different styles.) A very large number of very interesting replies have come in, most to the effect of, "You don't know the half of it!"
I will parcel them out from time to time. This initial installment has two. The first is from a former college professor of mine who later had a senior Congressional staff role. Then, discreetly after the jump, a dispatch from Tony Comstock, director of erotic films.
My former professor:
[This is] a very good point about interviewing techniques. People want to fill the void, often by digging themselves deeper in the process. I've also seen it work when politicians are in meetings with supplicants. Time and again, one or more of my Senate bosses would let the guests talk, nodding at appropriate points, and time would run out before they ever reached the key question, "Will you support/will you make a call/ will you act now...?" Many often seemed afraid to ask directly for what they wanted. And we avoided premature commitments in the process.
The film director:
I just read your post with more than passing interest!
I never do adversarial interviews; not in my erotic films, not in my "good cause" docs either. The only time I use (quasi) adversarial techniques is when I feel like a person is over- prepared and they're giving me (usually well-intentioned) spin instead of honest testimony. That sometimes happens with people who are accustomed to speaking in front of other people (teachers, politicians, business leaders, clergy) and I find I have to "trick" them into letting their guard down and speaking from the heart.
But on occasion I do use the stretched silence; not with the over prepared, but with everyday people; and not to indicate boredom, but to communicate fascination, even reverence.
When some one is close to opening up, but not quite there, I'll pick a moment to let something hang, and then lean in and make strong, but non-threatening eye contact -- "I want to hear more, and it's safe for you to tell me."
As you might imagine, when a couple has just allowed us to document their lovemaking, there is an opportunity to hear amazing testimony, if the space for that testimony is created in a gentle and generous way. The "stretched silence" is one of the ways I try to make that happen!