Alan Alda On Why We Need To Do Better When It Comes To Really Hearing Each Other

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In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, actor Alan Alda delves into a topic that has become an occupying passion of his: Communication. It’s an accessible and engaging read that may cause you to evaluate how you interact and speak with people in your life — I know it did for me — but it also sparks a big question that is particularly relevant in these times: Is anyone really listening?

In a lengthy chat with Alda, we discuss social media’s impact on that question, the need to drop our preconceived notions, and how listening and truly reading people can help in your marriage and work lives. And because it’s never not a timely subject, we also discuss political polarization and why we should all be willing to have our minds changed.

Uproxx: Why do we sometimes forget that the most important thing, when communicating, is to be understood?

Alan Alda: I know. It’s not only one of the most important things for us as a group of animals. I mean, we’re a social species and we rely on communication to socialize and explain that… we don’t excel at it as well as we should.

In order to get civilization done, or get a marriage working, or a parent and child explaining the world as they see it to one another, you need good communication. But what’s, to me, even more amazing, is that we have built-in functions, we have built-in abilities to do this. And we often don’t pay attention to them. Like, reading the other person. We’ve got the ability to do that. We don’t do it enough.

Twitter, Facebook, all these online interactions that are not necessarily replacing face-to-face contact and on the phone contact, but which are obviously a presence — is that part of why we’re struggling to connect with each other? And also, do you think that you can really have a real connection with someone on the internet?



That answer your question? (Laughs)

It does. (Laughs) But it’s an interesting thought. Would you agree that you can still read people with that kind of online conversation? It just takes a different skill set.

Yeah, to a certain extent. After a few emails with somebody, you can recognize whether they’re able to absorb three thoughts in the same email or if you can only hope to catch their attention with one, for instance. Or how they address you and how they sign off. You get a sense of who they are and how you can reach them. You have to go to some effort to do that. You have to realize that you’re reading the other person. It’s not an automatic process because we move too quickly.

For some strange reason, we don’t pay attention to this really important part of our lives.

To jump back to the social media thing for a second because it’s kind of enabled this in that it scratches this itch to be heard… but not necessarily understood. Do you think that’s part of the problem: that we’re desperate to have all of our thoughts and all of our feelings heard while we don’t necessarily focus on the impact of those thoughts?

It’s an interesting point. I think you’re right to point that out. There’s sometimes… The first thing they list on Twitter is how many impressions you have. Really, it’s like saying, how much confetti will fall out of a window during a parade? The question is how much of it landed where you wanted it to land? How much of it was noticed? Did you actually have a communication with somebody or was it just on the screen available to them? There’s a lot of misleading numbers associated with it. And everybody’s trying to get a lot of likes and a lot of impressions. It’s hard enough to communicate with even one person.

Labels have something to do with it too — friends, followers. It’s not just partners in conversation, it’s your “followers.” It makes you feel like you’re delivering proclamations from the mount.

That’s true. And what the book is about, really… It’s pointing us toward the idea that even when you’re facing somebody, it’s possible to “make proclamations from the mount.” And there’s more of a tendency to do that than to talk spontaneously and with vulnerability to somebody. And that’s how communication takes place, as far as I can tell from all the work I’ve done on it.

Can you talk a little bit about that work? I didn’t know going into this how deep the connection was between you and the issue of communication. When did it start and how has it matured as you’ve gone on?

More than 20 years ago I started doing Scientific American Frontiers. The PBS television show where I interviewed hundreds of scientists. And I realized on that show that what made the science understandable was that we had a very open relationship. We were really talking to each other in a free-wheeling open-ended conversation. It wasn’t a list of questions that were a prompt for them to give mini-lectures. They had to make me understand it. So it got very personal.

I realized that we could probably teach that to scientists. And over the years now, we’ve taught over eight thousand scientists. And we used scientists, and then we adapted it a little and we also taught doctors and other people in medicine.

In the process, you realize that in order to get that open connection, we used … We tried improvisation, along with the other fields of communication, of connecting. The communication was much more rigid. And now, we started the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook. And part of the way we’re beginning to fund it is teaching these same communication skills in corporations. The Alda Communications Training company, ACT. And it’s a profit-making company but the profits all go to the Center of Communicating Science in Stony Brook. And that led to the book, because I realized that… And people were telling me, it wasn’t just that I realized it. That every time we would give a workshop — and we did about 150 workshops a year in this country and countries around the world — people were coming up to us and telling us, “This isn’t just for scientists, this is for everybody.” So, the book is really an exploration of how we all can benefit.

In the book, when you detail your experiences with Scientific America and the interview process, some of the stuff that you encountered there hit a little close to home with me in terms of how I prepare for an interview usually.


For this, I tried to not have my questions scripted out. But I’ve cheated a little, and I think that’s fear-based. Fear would seem to be the main thing that would stop people from being able to engage. How do we conquer that and why is it, I guess, so important to conquer it? I’ll let you answer as I close my laptop and completely hide all of the other questions for the interview.

(Laughs) That’s funny. The thing is, fear goes away when it’s working. The reason that not having a set of questions is very helpful is that you actually have to say to yourself at a certain point, “Why am I talking to this person? What do I want to know from this person? What am I curious about?” Your curiosity will lead to real questions. Not questions born of the stereotype of the person or what you would ask anybody in that position. But what you want to know from this person. And that curiosity can generate questions that really make the person want to answer you, and want to answer you honestly. So you suddenly have more real stuff going between you that’s more interesting to write about than just the standard questions.

Even in a non-interview space with that kind of interaction, where you’re just talking between business associates or friends — that fear still exists, right? You don’t want to embarrass yourself. There’s that kind of closed-off preconception of what you’re going to say. Or you’re trying to be clever, which is a thing I know I suffer from a lot when I talk to my friends. Why is that a bad thing, in terms of communication?

Not always a bad thing.


Trying to be clever, trying to look smart is usually not helpful. In fact, I got to be really good at interviewing (I thought I was pretty good, anyway…) when I acknowledged that I was much more ignorant about the work of the scientists then I thought I was or I wanted to appear I was. And when I acknowledged this and had the curiosity to let them know what I understand, then I got really good stuff. But if I was trying to worm my way in with a false knowledge, a weak, inadequate knowledge of what their work was about, it was bad in two ways. I wasn’t letting them tell me, and I was telling them stuff about their work that wasn’t even accurate. I had misunderstood it and didn’t even know it. And I was boxing them in with these questions that weren’t legitimate, you know, based on their work.

Curiosity, to really be curious about another person, just breaks down the barriers so much. If you say to somebody, if there’s a reason to say it, “Do you have kids? How old are they? Where are they in school?” If you really care about that, if you care about kids in general, then suddenly you’re on a personal level. And I wonder how often two men in a business conversation exchange that kind of information. It’s interesting. It tells you who you’re talking to. But the thing is, it’s all based on knowing who you’re talking to, to one extent or another. So what you know about the person in advance gives you… you can’t help but put some questions in your head in advance, that’s no big thing. It’s having a list of questions that you go to regardless of what they say to you.

Just yesterday, I was interviewed by someone — no matter what I said, they didn’t seem to respond to what I said. They just came up with the next question. It’s not like a conversation. And I think the more you can make it a conversation, the more stuff will flow out naturally. Unedited, unguarded. And that’s the human stuff that makes it liable to be a quotable quote. That captures the whole encounter.

You said communication has been on your mind for at least 20 years. I’m kind of curious how that has evolved in your 60-year marriage. How the level and importance of communication — how that’s matured over time. I’m looking for tips, really.

(Laughs) Well, I’m not so good at giving tips. I keep saying it’s an experience you have to go through. But, since I’ve been working on the book, I’ve noticed a big difference in the way I communicate. Because I’ve really been focusing on that in an active way. And I find I’m much more interested in what’s under the tone of voice or under the question, under the complaint. And not just at home. But out in the world as well. That leads to less of a trigger-finger reaction. More patience, more looking for what the real question is that can be worked on. And usually it doesn’t even need to be worked on. As soon you understand what the problem is, you want to give a little. You can just avoid clashes that way. And that has to do with empathy, with noticing what’s under the surface.

I’ve noticed more and more, that even though I say in the book — a few times, I think — that empathy is not the same thing as sympathy or feeling bad for another person… It’s just a tool. In fact, empathy can be used against somebody as well as to help heal the bridge. And just knowing where the question is coming from, what’s under the surface — which you can get from empathy — doesn’t mean that you’re going to take a positive action as a result of that. You can be mean-spirited with that empathy. So you’ve got to have a shred of wanting to make things go well. If you just want to be antagonistic, you can even be more antagonistic with empathy. Which I don’t recommend.

Does it say something about my pre-installed notions that when you say things like, “You can use empathy against people, and you don’t want to be antagonistic,”, that I can’t stop thinking about our president? I don’t want to lead you down a road with politics here. But I’m just curious about it from a communication standpoint, when you watch him communicate, what comes to mind?

Well, I don’t talk about the politics.

Oh, then we don’t have to touch on it. I wouldn’t want to put you in an uncomfortable place. I imagine you get a lot of political questions though, with the West Wing experience.

I do. And also, 40 years ago, I was campaigning very hard for the equal rights amendment. After that campaign was over, I decided I had done my bit and I wanted to concentrate on my work. And then, interestingly, the work evolved into this communication work. And I do both now. I act and write, but I probably spend most of my time on communication. And I really love it, because I see people change. I see people we’ve trained, they’ve won contests speaking about science. More than one scientist has said it saved his marriage. I just love that. The change we can help bring about. And the more successful this program becomes… I mean, we’ve trained 8,000 scientists so far. There are hundreds of thousands, and if they could all communicate better science would be better off. Our country would be better off and so would other countries.

I imagine it can be hard to watch people shut down with communication when they see that someone is of an opposing view. I totally understand why you wouldn’t want to talk about politics. If you did come out fervently against a politician, than it could limit your audience and then limit your message.

I imagine that’s a somewhat depressing thing to see, the way we’ve kind of become more polarized as a people with communication. I know people who have family members they can’t talk to any more.

I know people like that too, and I’m really sorry to see that. And I wonder if part of it is… you brought up social media before. Not only social media, but the way most of us get our news is now either straight off the internet or cable news. Cable news is provided, to a great extent, ideologically.

It’s this tribal thing. We break into these tribes, essentially, and we become territorial about them, I think.

Yeah. And it’s no good. It’s not healthy to only get one point of view, all of the time. The only way we can get past false assumptions is to attack our own assumptions with an opposing point of view. With a fresh slant on it. Which has to come from people who don’t agree with us. If we can’t disagree and still have a conversation — not good.

I agree. I think that comes from that thing I said before. Fear. I think it’s fear of being uncomfortable, kind of leaving our comfort zone in terms of our ideology and of upsetting people in our lives.

I take it to an extreme place. From what I’ve learned from acting for instance, and as an actor I don’t say my next line because its in the script. I say it because the person I’m acting with says something or does something that makes me say my next line, that makes me say it a certain way. I’m responsive to the person I’m playing against. My performance is in their eyes, not in my head. And by the same token, if I’m listening to a stranger at a dinner party, I feel I’m not really listening to them unless I’m willing to be changed by them.

Actually, think, this person is telling me what sounds like nonsense. What’s under it? What are they really saying that can make me stronger and better? I can even disagree. But there may be something under it that is valuable. And if I’m listening to that then I’m really listening. And every encounter, whether it’s with people you agree with or disagree with, every encounter can be a moment where you get a little better at thinking and figuring things out.

I know that I suffer from a kind of stubbornness every once in a while where I can’t open up and can’t allow for… I think I know what I’m talking about all the time. I think we all suffer from that. But it’s definitely, like you said, something we need to get past.

Yeah, you know, I remember reading, twenty years ago, a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to his nephew. He gave him such good advice, he said whenever you express an opinion, be sure to say, “it seems to me” or at least “that’s my opinion.” Phrases that allow for it not to be the ultimate statement on that subject. And whenever I do it, I feel so much better. Because I’ve left the door open for the other person to counter that with a different thought. And they don’t feel that they have to be as aggressive about it because I’ve invited them in.