Alan Alda On How To Talk About Tough Topics

11:01 minutes

alan alda in a studio laughing
Credit: Clear + Vivid

Actor and writer Alan Alda might be best known as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, or as a familiar face from several Woody Allen films. But he also spent more than a decade interviewing scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, and later founded a center to teach scientists how to communicate better with the public—through improv.

His latest project is hosting the podcast Clear + Vivid, where he’s interviewed a long list of public figures, from Adam Driver to Melinda Gates, and a wide variety of scientists like climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and primatologist Frans de Waal. In this interview with Ira, he focuses on a few memorable moments in the podcast that illustrate how to talk about tough topics like climate change.

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Segment Guests

Alan Alda

Alan Alda is an actor and writer. He’s also the host of the Clear + Vivid podcast, and founder of the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You might know actor and writer Alan Alda best as Hawkeye in MASH or a familiar face from several Woody Allen films or all the other kinds of stuff that he’s doing. But we like him most for a decade interviewing scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, and later founded a center to teach scientists how to communicate better with the public through improv.

And now, his latest project is hosting the podcast Clear and Vivid, for which he’s interviewed a long list of public figures from Adam Driver and Yo-Yo Ma to Melinda Gates, and of course, many scientists, too. Now, the essence of the podcast is the idea how to truly connect with other people, how to really listen and get your messages across also, which can come in handy when topics like climate change come up in a few weeks at Thanksgiving. And they’re going to be there at the table.

So maybe we’ll get some pointers from Alan Alda. He’s, as I say, host of Clear and Vivid podcast, founder of the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook here in New York out on Long Island. He joins us. Welcome back, Alan.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you– great to be here, Ira. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: How do you approach– you worked for so many years as an actor and an improv. Do you approach the interview differently than most of us might do it?

ALAN ALDA: I do. And it just crept up on me naturally. I didn’t know– I didn’t realize what I was doing. But what I was doing when I interviewed those hundreds of scientists on Scientific American Frontiers was using my experience as an improviser and an actor, where I made personal contact with them. And I asked them questions, not to give them a chance to go into a mini lecture, but to exercise my own curiosity and get them to explain to me. So I could really understand it, because I had a hunger to understand what they were working on. And that made them talk to me in a more personal way.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s your philosophy, then, for selecting guests for your podcast, because it’s not just scientists who you’re talking to.

ALAN ALDA: Right. I mean, our next season, we’ve got Julie Andrews, Paul McCartney, Tom Hanks, Bill Nye the Science Guy. We cover all kinds of fields. One of our most interesting guests was a chief hostage negotiator for the FBI. And he said his techniques for negotiating hostages– for hostages is– his techniques could be very useful in a marriage.


IRA FLATOW: That’s good. That’s great. Yeah, I like that. Let me play a clip–

ALAN ALDA: You got to listen to that.


IRA FLATOW: I did. You have to listen. And you’re going to– we’re going to talk about this, because I want to play a clip now from an interview you did with the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a very famous scientist–


IRA FLATOW: You two were talking about how important it is to talk about climate change with people and to make them care about it. Let’s hear that.


– But I wondered how we should be talking about– I mean, I can imagine ways to talk about it. But I’d like to hear from you what your best advice is.

– Well, my best advice based on thousands of conversations that I’ve had, some of which went well and some of which did not, and of course, you always learn the most from the ones that didn’t–


–I think. The best advice is to start the conversation not with what we most disagree on, but rather with what we most agree on, with what we have in common. So that means that instead of hearing somebody say something that you disagree with and immediately jumping in with, how could you say that? That is completely false.


– I know. I know.

– Instead, the time to have a conversation is when we’re talking about something that we do agree about. And it doesn’t have to– not climate change. It could be, you know, that we’re bemoaning the quality of coffee these days or that we’re concerned about the changes that we’re seeing in our garden. Or we’re worried about the economy and China getting ahead of the United States. Almost every conversation these days we can connect the dots to how a changing climate is impacting something we already care about.


IRA FLATOW: And that’s important, isn’t it, Alan, to establish trust with the person you’re talking–

ALAN ALDA: I think trust is– especially when you’re talking about something as contentious as the climate crisis, and if I said it was a climate crisis to the wrong person, they’d say, well, what do you mean, crisis? So–


–you have to have this trust that you are not the enemy. You share many things in your common humanity. And I think Katharine Hayhoe really is onto something important there. You can establish trust with almost anybody if you get down to the things that you really have in common– your everyday experience.

IRA FLATOW: We asked our listeners on the Science Friday VoxPop app how they approach talking about climate change with people, who might disagree with them. And here’s what Taylor in Huntsville, Alabama had to say.


– When discussing a controversial topic, it’s important to give validation and acceptance to parts of their story that are actually true and makes sense. On the other hand, you do want to be confident in your perspective, in your place, in your beliefs, and back them up with sound science, and be rational.


ALAN ALDA: I think that’s a very, very good piece of advice. And I think what’s underneath that is very important. You don’t have to agree with a person to listen really well and long to them. The more you listen to them, the more they feel validated. You’re not cutting them off after the first sentence. Oh, you believe that. You’re totally wrong. You know, it was what Katharine was just saying a minute ago. And you can establish respect for the other person. And if you don’t, they’re going to respect you, I don’t think.

IRA FLATOW: Is that something you teach at the Alda Center for Communicating Science– how to connect with people?

ALAN ALDA: That’s right. And that’s why we use improv exercises, because the exercises that we do puts you in a position, where you connect deeply to the other person. You’re reading the other person. If you don’t read the other person, you can’t really do the exercise.

And that transforms you. It’s not a piece of advice we give. It’s not a tip. It’s an experience that actually changes you after you go through it a day or two of these workshops.

IRA FLATOW: And I want to encourage our listeners to tell us what’s your advice, listeners, for talking about subjects like climate change when someone, who might disagree with you. Tell us on the Science Friday VoxPop app what is your advice about how do you get someone into talking about, like, climate change with someone, who might disagree with you? How do you do that, Alan? Alan–

ALAN ALDA: Listen. Listen. Listen. You know, my– I have this radical idea.


ALAN ALDA: It may be too radical for other people. It’s that I don’t think I’m really listening unless I’m willing to be changed by you. And that doesn’t mean that I’m going to agree with what you’re saying. But I might be changed by something about you, some deeply held belief you have about just living, about your dedication to your children, or something like that.

And I might be touched by that. That’s more important than hitting you over the head with my argument, I think, because it leads to more interaction than– you may have things to say that I’d be ignoring at my peril if I just battered you into believing what my point of view is.

IRA FLATOW: I wanted to talk about another thing you do on the podcast, which is you ask every guest a list of short, simple questions at the end.


IRA FLATOW: And one of them is, how do you tell someone that they have their facts wrong? It’s an important question in this era of alternative facts. And I wanted to play a selection of responses your guests have had to that question. We have a biologist, a neurologist, a Robert Sapolsky, philanthropist Melinda Gates, and the musician Pat Metheny.


– How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?

– You probably first spend a whole lot of time figuring out why those facts are so important to them and take it from there.

– Oh that’s interesting.

– People don’t like to be told that they’re wrong. And so you have to do it in a very gentle, kind way. And you don’t do it in front of other people, where you will embarrass them. Or you’ll get their back up. And they’ll never hear you.

– Yeah, good technique.

– I’m pretty blunt. If something is really wrong, I’ll just say, no, that’s really not what it is. And then, you know–


–I mean, you know, we live in an era at the moment, where there’s a lot of that going on. I have real problems with that. I have to admit. You know, it’s sort of like– I mean, there is a musical version of that, too, which is people–

– Which is what?

– People playing wrong notes or chords–

– Oh, yeah, right.

– People just saying, no, I really hear that, man. It’s like, no, you don’t. You just don’t know the notes in the chord.


You know, don’t say you do when you don’t, you know.

– That’s great. So I have trouble with that, too. It’s like to me, there are kind of, you know, fundamental laws of nature involved in just what’s true–

– Right.

– and what isn’t. And–

– Gravity does exist.

– Exactly.




ALAN ALDA: Yeah, Pat Metheny is in a great position. He can be tough on the person who plays the wrong notes, because he can fire the bass player. But at Thanksgiving dinner, you can’t fire Uncle Bill.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about that. You are a great communicator and a science communicator. What is the advice you have for us in handling a very difficult possible confrontation at Thanksgiving?

ALAN ALDA: We’re all going to– almost everybody’s going to be in that situation.


ALAN ALDA: And I think following Katharine Hayhoe’s advice is really good. When she gives a talk, for 10 or 15 minutes, she doesn’t talk about climate change at all. She talks about how her background is just like the background of the people she’s talking to, so talking about our lives together, especially if it’s close friends, who don’t agree with us or relatives, who don’t agree with us– we have a life that’s apart from those disagreements. Why don’t we emphasize that first and bring the tone of the conversation to a more personal, intimate level?

IRA FLATOW: The old song says accentuate the positive.



Yeah, we got to see each other as people and listen with respect. It’s hard, I know. Yeah, it is. But you can just hear it when somebody leaps at the other person and says, oh, no. You see the whole thing crack and fall apart.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Alan, thank you for taking time to be with us.

ALAN ALDA: Thanks. I always enjoy seeing you–

IRA FLATOW: That’s great.

ALAN ALDA: –and hearing you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Alan.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Alan Alda, actor and writer, founder of the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and host of a Clear and Vivid podcast. It’s a great podcast. And good luck with everything that you do, Alan.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: And if you, our listeners, have tips for talking about climate change, we want to hear them. Tell us on our Science Friday VoxPop app.

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