Famed Actor Alan Alda on the Secrets to Better Communication
This story appears in the June 2017 issue of . Subscribe »
The fact that he’s a famous actor is probably the least fascinating thing about Alan Alda these days. A likable and inquisitive guy, Alda spent 11 years interviewing scientists for the documentary show Scientific American Frontiers. The experience of trying to understand brilliant minds doing important work inspired him to partner with Stony Brook University to establish the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which teaches scientists strategies for conveying their ideas to laypeople. It also inspired him to launch a deeper investigation into how people -- scientists, teachers, businesspeople, dentists and so on -- communicate. The fruit of that research is his surprisingly useful new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.
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Back when you were interviewing scientists, you ditched your lists of questions and proceeded with a sense of what you call “ignorance with curiosity.” You felt that having a list of questions was actually hurting your ability to communicate with people.
I think that’s true. My experience interviewing those hundreds of people was that if I asked them a question and they answered it, and then I asked the next question on my list, it was a sign to them that I wasn’t listening.
Plus, it only got you answers to the questions you thought to ask. Not necessarily the questions you should have been asking.
And the questions that are most important are the ones you think to ask in response to the other person.
I was surprised to learn you used to work in sales.
Yeah. I had to do something as a young actor to support my family. And I didn’t get it at first. I thought of selling as manipulating people, because that’s how I had been sold, and I really resented that. But I eventually figured out that focusing on the other person’s needs and not my own was the most effective way to make a sale. Later I came across this guy Daniel Goleman, who had written pretty much the same thing.
Your book was basically inspired by the opposite of that: a bad experience with your dentist. What happened?
There was this operation he had invented that involved cutting that thing inside your mouth that connects your gum to your upper lip. He was really more interested in doing it than in explaining to me what it was. And I was kind of shocked when I didn’t have a smile after that. I was acting in a movie, and my lip was hanging down like a hoop skirt. He explained in a letter that there was a second step to the operation. But his letter’s tone showed me that he was much more interested in avoiding a lawsuit.
Which is funny, because you cite a study in the book that found that when doctors apologized to patients for mistakes, lawsuits went down by more than half. That’s amazing.
It is amazing. It shows respect. If you show defensiveness, you increase the chances of getting into a fight.
It reminds me of this friend of mine. He was saying the other day that his most loyal customers are the ones he screwed up with the worst and then made good with.
That’s a wonderful story. I wish I had that in the book.
There’s another bad customer service experience in here, too. You got in a cab, and the guy didn’t know where to go. Instead of indulging in the age-old New York pastime of yelling at cabbies, you decided to try to connect with him. And he really lit up.
So much so that it became a pain in the ass and he wouldn’t let me get out of the cab! But it was a remarkable demonstration, to me, about how empathy transforms you. It made my behavior different, and it changed his behavior.
Those moments are pretty rare. But when they do happen, I always feel like people are sort of relieved.
That sense of relief is such a palpable thing to me. It makes me wonder why relating to others isn’t self-reinforcing. We don’t just tend toward it naturally. On the contrary, we seem to have to concentrate on doing the things that bring about the connection. I do it myself now. If someone is doing something annoying, I think, What are they going through that’s making that happen? The amazing thing is that I get more patience from it. I don’t feel like I have to work at being patient. I just have more patience.
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And it’s not just about managing conflict. There’s a fascinating story you tell about an Israeli scientist who banned shop talk from the beginnings of meetings.
Uri Alon. He has his graduate students get together every week to talk about their work, but for the first half hour, nobody talks about work. They talk about what happened to them that week, or something that’s happening to a relative that bothers them. Then when they do talk about work, they’re warmed up to each other. They’re more helpful to one another. It’s like a creative group rather than a critical group.
I discovered that independently when we were doing M*A*S*H, too. Instead of going to our trailers, we would sit around in a circle and just make each other laugh. It turned out to be the best preparation we could do for the scenes, because we were really turned on to each other. That’s contributed to how I train scientists and even businesspeople to communicate better.
What are some of the strategies you use, besides actually listening to people?
Observing the other person is the first step. In my own life, poor communication has been preceded by not noticing the other person. I would even be able to remember, later, the expression on their face -- that was very confused, or forbidding, or hurt, or generally not being with me -- but I wouldn’t act on it in the moment. After the fact, I’d say, "What was going wrong there?," and I’d realize I was disconnected from them and they were disconnected from me.
Anytime you can laugh together, you invite the other person in. You’re never more vulnerable than when you’re laughing. You’re really open to the other person. You’re not telling jokes -- just having a sense of jovial community. That kind of thing opens up both people and makes it a little easier.
There’s an interesting point in the book about explaining things to people. You have to start with what they know. But how do you know what they know?
You’ve got to figure that out partly from their faces, and partly if you can make it a conversation.
And then you have to avoid the tendency to get excited by how much they do know and dump heaps of information on them.
Right. [Laughs] I really have found that you can’t start out too far in or too far back, too childishly simpleminded or too complicated. You’ve got to find out where that spot is that counts for them.
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This is applicable to business, too. People have a tendency to instinctively say no when overwhelmed with information they don’t understand.
It’s a self-protective response, to say, “I’m not going to put my money into this if I don’t know what it is.” Why would you? You know -- scientists talking to Congress to get money, when the members of Congress have no idea what they’re talking about. There isn’t anybody among us who would fork over a fortune if we don’t understand what it’s about.
So something like excessive jargon must be a killer.
Jargon is a big one. There are some good reasons for using jargon. Some of the bad reasons, though, are trying to look like a big deal, to look smarter, to show you know a lot. Well, I think you show all that a lot better by being clear.