Legendary actor Alan Alda wants you to never have another awkward conversation again.
Whether you’re in a meeting, on a date, or catching up with friends, the skill of active listening can serve you well in a multitude of ways. Not only are you guaranteed to have a greater flow to your conversations, but you will create a more lasting and genuine impression. So how can you guarantee that you never again have to worry about having an awkward conversation?
If you’re a little older, then you know Alan Alda from his iconic role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV show “M*A*S*H,” one of the most successful TV shows of all time. If you’re a bit younger, you might know him from his role on “The West Wing.” He's won seven Emmy awards, three Tony nominations, and garnered a nomination for an Academy Award for his role as Senator Owen Brewster in the movie “The Aviator.” Alda also hosted the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers,” for 11 years and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science over at Stony Brook University. His new book is called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.
I recently had the chance to interview Alan for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed his tips on radical listening and the key to an effortless conversation. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You say, “Real listening, you have to you be willing to let the other person change you.” What do you mean by that?
Alan Alda: I know that sounds radical and I'll tell you where I got it from, so we can put it into perspective. From my experience acting on the stage and in movies, I don't say my next line in a scene because it's written in the script or because I've memorized it and I know it comes after your line. I say the next line because you make me say it. I'm responsive to you. I let you change me. I'm in one state of mind and then you start talking, or you start behaving in a certain way, and it makes something happen to me and that's why I say the next line, and that's why I say it the way I say it.
I began to realize that in board meetings and sales meetings, where I wanted to communicate something to somebody else, I needed to listen to them and instead of showing them I was listening by simply repeating what they said to me—which, by the way, if you do in a clumsy way makes you the most annoying person in the room, but it ought to be to make sure you know what the person's talking about. “Do I have this right? Is this what you mean?” That kind of thing where you're trying to make a connection with the other person and you're really dedicated to the idea that whatever the other person is saying may be so valuable that it can have a positive effect on you, then you really want to know what they mean by what they're saying and you’re demonstrating with active listening that you heard them. It's actually reinforcing the connection you have by wanting to know you're on the same wavelength with them. And if you're slightly off the wavelength, what a victory to know that. What a wonderful thing to say, “Oh, I thought you meant the other thing. This is great. I see what you mean now.”
Understanding what the other person means and being open to the idea that even if it's based on something you don't agree with, even strongly don't agree with, there may be something under that. Some impulse under that's a positive impulse as far as you're concerned, and that could really help you. Not to act like it helps you, it's not a phony interaction. It's to really find a connection with the other person. It shows respect for the other person that they're worth listening to and it's not a show. It's not acting.
Good acting is not acting either. The best acting comes when acting drops away and an authentic experience takes place.
Kruse: You said that with the episodes of Scientific American Frontiers you got better when you stopped preparing questions.
Alda: Yes. In the beginning, I thought it was my duty to read every paper I could find by this scientist and the mistake was that in a couple of days, I couldn't know what that scientist knows after 30 years of work. What I could know was what I thought his work added up to after 30 years, which was almost invariably wrong. My assumptions were my enemy. Instead of going in and asking this scientist what he or she had dedicated themselves to and to tell me in terms I could understand, I assumed things in the beginning. I thought I was going in prepared. I was really going in prepared for trouble, because when I started to really read their faces while we were talking, I would see this flicker of panic come across their face when I would ask a question that assumed something about their work that wasn't true. That's hard for them, because what are they going to say? There's a guy interviewing them in the middle of a broadcast or in the middle of a taping. “Well, you don't really understand this. You're way off from what I'm trying to do.” You're putting them in a box. He couldn't really object and he couldn't really answer the question because it assumed something wrong.
When I stopped doing all of that over-preparation, I made sure I was prepared in the sense that I had a general idea of what the work was about, then my ignorance was my ally because ignorance with curiosity is wonderful. Ignorance without curiosity, not so good.
Kruse: The best interviews I've ever had are always when I've gone off script.
Alda: I was admiring the fact that you have your notebook open and you just had a couple of sentences written down there. Now I see it's five. But look at how many conversations we can get out of just having a few guideposts?
The thing is, if you're doing something in real time, for instance, I've interviewed scientists a lot in front of a large audience, and we only have 45 minutes to an hour. Well, if it's a conversation that just goes anywhere it wants to go, it might be entertaining, but it might not achieve what the scientist hoped to achieve, which was to sell his book. Although I've had scientists who say, “Forget the book. Let's just have fun.” And they know they'll get interesting and pertinent points out along the way.
I use little guidelines sometimes if it's live, but don't forget Scientific American Frontiers was shot on tape and we had an hour or two hours of material that would be cut down to two to five minutes, so the editor made a coherent conversation out of it. The value of my being able to just have an open-ended conversation was that the scientist and I were drawn into each other's orbit. We were really connected and the real person came out of the “scientist.” If the scientist had a funny sense of humor, that blossomed. If they had a lot of ambition that they wouldn't ordinarily show, that showed and it was a human element. The human connection really made for listenable stuff and I think that's what you're telling me, why people listen to your podcasts and respond to it when it goes conversational.
Kruse: You changed your approach to communication as the host of that show, but you also discovered that scientists could use some help communicating their ideas.
Alda: It was a lot like that, but it had this extra element in it. The conversations almost always went really well, so it wasn't that I saw scientists couldn't communicate. It was that, although scientists have a reputation for not communicating in a personal way, telling stories and being emotional, when we would talk you didn't see that happen much because we had this human dynamic connection. So I thought, “Wouldn't it be good if we could train scientists to have that without somebody like me standing next to them?” To give them the opportunity to get used to making this personal connection in a workshop, and then when they turn to the audience, they would have that ability to look them in the eye and talk to them in a personal tone. Not look over their heads because they're nervous or don't want to actually be seen by people.
The worry of “How am I doing?” is such an enemy to real connection and real communication. How you're doing is how you're doing. That's just reality regardless of whether you know it or not. But connecting is so much more fun than worrying how you're doing and it leads to so many better results.
Kruse: You were experimenting with how some of the improv training you've had can help with this connection, right?
Alda: I wasn't looking to make scientists or medical professionals into comedians. It's not that kind of improvising. It's improvising exercises whose main objective is to help you connect with the other person. And that turns out to be, I think, the reason why it's so useful not only in communicating science and medicine, but in communicating in the workplace, because the connection with the other person helps you work better together. Helps you understand. There you are, you've been drawn into this company for reasons that have nothing to do with your personal chemistry. In a movie, the leading man and leading woman are put together partly because people think they'll have good chemistry together. I don't think people are hired that way, mostly.
If you can do something to improve that chemistry, won't things work more smoothly? Won't that be the grease in the gears? And I think it is. The way we started to find that out was from scientists who started to say to us, “Not only do I communicate better with an audience, the teamwork in my lab is so much better because people are listening to one another. People are openly communicating.”
Kruse: How many years ago did you formalize the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook?
Alda: Eight years ago, and since then we've had in workshops over 8,000 scientists and doctors. It's really wonderful and we're brought back to places. We've also trained at NASA. Mostly universities, but also the National Academy of Sciences, and IBM.
I think IBM had a problem that many corporations have where there's some science in the corporation. They had scientists who needed to communicate their data to the business people and before it could be communicated to a clientèle or to customers, the people around the business had to know that they had something valuable to sell and the scientists were coming in with their technical knowledge, and they only had 15 minutes to explain it. So you've got to be really sharp about the way you talk about what you're talking about. And I think that's probably a model that we're going to be called in to help work on more and more.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.