Alan Alda: To Talk Better, Listen

17:26 minutes

Alan Alda, at Science Friday’s 25th Anniversary Gala. Credit: Peter Reitzfeld

Actor Alan Alda spends more of his time thinking about science these days, specifically how scientists can do a better job making their research relatable to the public. If you want to explain the Higgs boson, for example, maybe you should start with how excited researchers were to find evidence for its existence, rather than trying to explain what a Higgs field is.

[Read an excerpt from Alan Alda’s new book.]

Alda teaches scientists using theater improvisation and other empathy-building exercises. In a new book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” (Randomhouse, 2017), he shares his advice with the rest of us. He and Ira talk about how to get inside your listener’s head and why you should try, whether the goal is to communicate better about science, or just to get along with other people.

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. We frequently bring on actor Alan Alda to talk about, well, talking about science. He’s a veteran, after all, in talking to scientists and teaching them to communicate better.

And some of the methods he suggests may seem strange at first, like ranting about something, for example, or trying to talk in sync with another person. But as an actor trained at getting inside people’s heads, he thinks his insight can help the rest of us get our ideas across better. Because it all comes down to empathy.

And without further ado, needing almost no introduction, Alan Alda– actor, director, screenwriter, founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He’s got a new book– If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Always good to see you, Alan.


IRA FLATOW: How did you choose that name for the book?

ALAN ALDA: Well, interestingly, it’s a book about communicating and relating to other people. So I thought a funny title would be “Huh?” My editor didn’t think that was so good. So I searched some more.

And actually, I like this title better. Because “Huh?” kind of focuses on the negative– you know, I don’t get it. But the title If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? really of points you to the point I’m trying to make in the book, which is that the other person– the person you’re trying to communicate with– is the one you have to focus on– not what you want to say, what you want them to know. You’ve got to know who they are, where they are in their head while you’re communicating with them.

You can’t always know that. But the better estimate you can make of it– whether you’re talking to them, whether you’re talking to one person or a crowd, or writing for them, you have to make an estimate of what they’re thinking as you talk, if you possibly can.

IRA FLATOW: Can you learn that as you talk to them?


IRA FLATOW: Get some sort of idea.

ALAN ALDA: It’s in real time. Because let’s say you think, OK, communicating is getting the best possible message that makes this perfectly clear. And I start talking to you, and I find out, you’re not ready for what I have to say. You need something before that.

I made a visit to CERN a couple of years ago. And I was very excited. They were hot on the trail of the Higgs, or maybe they had just found the Higgs.

So I was back having dinner with a friend, and at the dinner table, she said, tell us all about the Higgs boson. What is that? So I said, well, it’s a particle that makes up the Higgs field, and it has– she said, wait a minute. What’s a particle?

So I had to go back to much earlier than I thought I did. If she didn’t say that– if she didn’t stop me– I would have gone on and on and be talking more and more Greek to her.

IRA FLATOW: But what you’re saying is that to be a good communicator, you have to be a good listener, too.

ALAN ALDA: I think you have to listen better than the person you’re communicating with.


ALAN ALDA: Because you have to not only be aware of what you’re saying and adapt what you’re saying, you have to pick up as many clues as you can from them. In the title of the book, you’re picking up clues from the face. But there are all kinds of clues.

You can pick up the tone of voice. What do they seem to be feeling as you talk to them? You know, that’s where empathy comes in.

IRA FLATOW: Empathy.

ALAN ALDA: Yeah. I think empathy is a really important part of it. I don’t know if you can do good communication without having an awareness of what the other person is going through, especially emotionally. But their point of view– what’s their point of view?

And if you have that in mind– if you can keep adjusting to that– I think your chances of communicating are far better. So the training that we do, which you are talking about a second ago– how do these odd moments that we have in training in our workshop exercises lead to this? Well, what they all do– as strange as they might seem to the people going through them– what they do is put you in touch with another person so that you read them really well.

You get habituated to reading another person. And that gives you the chance to have a clue about what they’re going through as you communicate with them.

IRA FLATOW: So you think being a good listener is something you can train–

ALAN ALDA: Oh, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: –somebody to do.

ALAN ALDA: And you can train people to have more empathy. You don’t always call it that. But that’s what’s happening. It enables a closer connection– a more personal connection– to the person you’re trying to communicate with.

And what happens, I think, is that the other person becomes your communicating partner, not the target of your communication. There’s a big difference. It’s ping pong instead of archery, where I’m trying to shoot arrows of knowledge into your head.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of the connection, and speaking about your emphasis about empathy, with our society so polarized now, it’s very difficult for people who don’t agree to have that connection or that empathy.

ALAN ALDA: It really is. It really is. And I think that some of the work that people are doing to try to bridge that gap kind of reflects on the value of what we’re doing in our workshops. Because one of the things that we bring about through this connection we establish is a sense of commonality, a sense of community, a sense of familiarity.

And those people who seem much better at communicating with audiences who are pretty iffy about accepting the concept, say, of global warming, they do much better before they ever get into that subject if they establish what they have in common– what their concerns are, what their upbringing was like, what the connections between the two people are in terms of similarities. Once they do that– and there have been a number of studies that show teaching gets better when the teacher and the student know about similarities that they have– it almost is an automatic thing that happens. Some door opens. A channel opens up.

So the polarization in the country may eventually come about by people communicating along the lines that we’re finding work with scientists and doctors. And now we’ve spread it out. And the book is really about– and I love this. The scientists themselves were telling us this, what this work is really about.

One guy came up to us and said, this training has saved my marriage. And that’s–

IRA FLATOW: Unintended consequences.

ALAN ALDA: Yeah. [LAUGHS] And good ones, too. And that’s really what most of the book is about, is about how all of us can use it in our everyday lives– parents and teachers and teenagers and their parents and lovers– husbands and wives.

It’s really amazing that– what we have found– in the past eight years, we’ve been working with 8,000 scientists and doctors. We’ve had them in workshops. And another 30,000 we’ve given talks to where we explain what we’re doing– but the workshop is the real experience where it happens. And what we found working with them is that this connection that we establish is something basic to all communication.

And I’ll tell you where it– this is a personal experience I had that I think was very– it’s in the book. In the book, I don’t own up to it as a personal experience. So you’re getting the inside–

IRA FLATOW: We won’t tell anybody.

ALAN ALDA: No. Nobody’s listening, right? Just millions of people with a pencil in their hand. But if you want to do some good with knowing how the other person feels, empathy can get you over the hump, and get you to actually do it. For instance, this is the thing that was personal to me. But I said in the book, a husband comes home late at night–

IRA FLATOW: I wonder who that is.

ALAN ALDA: It turned out to be me. So his wife– my wife– was already asleep in bed. And I passed by the kitchen sink and I see this huge pile of dishes in the sink. And I say, I guess I ought to do something about that. It’s an impulse to do something positive. What are the chances I’m going to do something– not so great. Midnight– it’ll last until the morning.

But then I had this little moment of empathy, where I could feel what she was feeling. And I thought, when she wakes up in the morning, what is she going to feel when she looks in that sink? And I thought, I’m going to clean it up.

Now, I wanted to. The empathy didn’t make me do something good. But it enabled me to do something. It was a tool I could use.

And in the same way, it’s a tool we can use to communicate with one another– to share knowledge.

IRA FLATOW: Can scientists use empathy to communicate?

ALAN ALDA: I think they have to. I think they have to keep aware of who they’re talking to. Now, here’s an interesting thing.

We talk about emotion and storytelling being really important. Mostly, scientists are trained for good reason not to include emotion and storytelling when they talk to other scientists when they write papers explaining their work hoping for replication and that kind of thing. That makes sense, because I personally don’t want a scientific discovery or a feat of engineering to be successful because somebody has a cute personality.

I don’t want to have somebody say, the guy who built this bridge is a really nice guy. Why don’t you take a walk across it? I want to have a little more assurance than that.

And I even understand why jargon is used. If you can say in one word something that takes five pages to explain to a layperson, but you’re talking to a fellow scientist, use the one word if they understand you. However, if they’re not in your field, you maybe need to explain it in layman’s terms.

When the nanoscientists and neuroscientists got together in Washington to talk about the Obama BRAIN Initiative, they argued for hours and hours about the meaning of the word “probe–” an ordinary English word. But they came in from different viewpoints.

So you have to know who you’re talking to. Or you’re talking to an audience that needs to hear more technical language, or you’re talking to the rest of us.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that if scientists became better storytellers, that they’d be able to communicate better what they do?

ALAN ALDA: Yeah, I think so. One of the modules we teach is storytelling. Because I come from the stage, I like what Aristotle said about what makes a good story in the theater work, which is dramatic action, where I’m a hero and I’m trying to achieve something. I’m trying to get somewhere to a great, valuable goal. Well, if the story is simply, that’s what I want and that’s what I got, it’s not much of a story to me.

But his idea of dramatic action was, I’m on the way to get this great thing, And there’s an obstacle suddenly put in my path. And I’ve got to fight my way through that obstacle to get to the golden trophy at the end. That’s interesting to watch.

And what’s funny is, if you say sometimes to scientists in our workshop– for instance, you say tell us the story of your work. Tell us the story of one of your experiments, they say, I don’t have a story. And then it turns out that the beaker broke, and six months of their data was lost, or something like that.

IRA FLATOW: They do have a story.

ALAN ALDA: Everybody has a story. But we don’t think automatically of that.

IRA FLATOW: In case you just joined us, we’re talking to Alan Alda, founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook. And he’s author of a really interesting new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

Well, I remember a seminal story we did many years ago on Science Friday. We were talking about the vaccination and autism. And one of the chief scientists who worked in the field said he had a mound of data on his desk that showed that there was no connection between vaccination and autism.

And I had a woman caller who came on, and she spoke very well. I gave her a whole eight minutes to talk by herself. It was the longest monologue of a listener I’ve ever had on.

And when she was done, I asked her, is there any amount of evidence that I could show you– that anybody could show you– that would change your mind about this? And she paused, and said, no, I just don’t believe anything my government says.

ALAN ALDA: Oh, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: And I said, thank you very much for your opinion. Now, we know what the terrain looks like.

ALAN ALDA: Yeah. It’s very interesting. There’s that meme out there about the government. I just read a story about Iowa where a person’s friends in Iowa don’t use the term public schools. They call them government schools. And they don’t want their children to go to government schools.

We have to communicate with one another. We have to get back to where we can speak the same language.

IRA FLATOW: But does that mean she would have to empathize, as you say, with what they’re going through with this, or understand at the same time?

ALAN ALDA: Yeah, how did they arrive at that point of view, and how can you share your point of view, and listen to one another without name calling? I don’t think that can get us anywhere.

But the interesting thing is– I can’t remember– a few months ago, there was research that seemed to show, on the very issue of vaccination, that the more– I believe the outcome of the research was, the more data you tell somebody whose mind is made up about vaccination– the more data you give them, the less likely they are to change their minds.

Now, maybe that’s because they don’t have a relationship with the concept of data that we have. And maybe that’s a chasm that needs to be breached.

IRA FLATOW: Or, to take a page out of your book, maybe they can’t empathize with someone who is suffering from that disease. Like polio– we both grew up in the era of when people were in iron lungs.

ALAN ALDA: In fact, I had polio when I was seven.

IRA FLATOW: And we can empathize with you and other people about the need for vaccination.

ALAN ALDA: Right. And I thought you were going to say– maybe you were saying– that we can empathize with a parent who has a child with the condition of autism. Instead of going right into facts, the human connection– the sense of what that person must be going through– must be terrible. And to be able to know what the solution is– even the facts contradict it– must be relief.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Do we do we need to practice empathy?

ALAN ALDA: Yes. That’s what I’ve found, at least in my own life. And I see it in the people we work with. This is a strange thing, and I don’t understand it. We have the capacity for empathy. It feels good when we exercise it. Things go so much better.

The more empathic I am, the less annoying other people are. I love that. Yet it wears off after awhile, and I need a booster shot. And I’ve developed exercises that I do during the day, almost like going to the gym. It’s like the empathy gym. And I keep getting back in touch with–

I just did it on the way into the studio, with the driver. He went a roundabout route, and I had asked him to go a different route. And I had an impulse to be snarky. And I thought about what he was going through, and I got connected to him in a way that relieved me of the need to be snarky. And I got here in this the same amount of time. What difference did it make? I find I need a booster shot every once in awhile.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we all do. And you’ll get a great booster shot from Alan Alda’s new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? It’s out from Random House right now. Alan Alda– actor, director, screenwriter, founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook. Always a pleasure to have you, Alan.

ALAN ALDA: It always is a pleasure to be here, Ira. Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re quite welcome. BJ Leiderman composed our theme music. Our thanks to our production partners at the studios of the City University of New York. We had engineering help from [? Neil ?] [? Rausch ?] and [? Brian ?] McCabe. And thanks to the rest of the folks at NPR.

You can email us at SciFri@sciencefriday.com. Or you can tweet us, @SciFri, or go to our Facebook site. We’re everywhere. Have a great weekend. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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