Actor and Author Alan Alda

The actor and author discusses his book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.

Alan Alda has earned international recognition as an actor, writer, and director. He has won seven Emmy Awards, received three Tony nominations, is an inductee of the Television Hall of Fame, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Aviator. Alda played Hawkeye Pierce on the classic television series M*A*S*H, and his films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bridge of Spies, and many more. Alda is an active member of the science community, having hosted the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers for eleven years and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Alda is the author of two bestselling books, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned and Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself. His latest text is If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

Follow @alanalda on Twitter.

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Like Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science on Facebook.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight first, actor Alan Alda discusses his new book titled “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” The text chronicles his journey to discover new ways to help people communicate and to relate to one another more effectively.

Then bluesy rocker, Benjamin Booker, joins us to discuss his project, “Witness”. It is the follow-up to his critically lauded debut album.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that coming up in just a moment.

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Tavis: Alan Alda is an award-winning actor known for playing Hawkeye Pierce, as we all know, on the classic TV series, “M*A*S*H”, among many other notable roles.

He is also a bestselling author. His latest book is titled, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating”. Alan Alda, I am always, always, sir, honored — and I mean that — to have you on this program, my friend.

Alan Alda: Me too. Thank you.

Tavis: It’s good to see you.

Alda: Good to see you.

Tavis: Can I just tell you how much I —  how excited I got when I saw this book come across my desk? Because I think that one of the many things that’s wrong with our world is that we don’t communicate well, and that’s pretty obvious these days [laugh].

Alda: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: There’s no empathy, there is no generous or charitable listening. It’s one of the real problems. There’s no civil exchange, civil dia — so you’ve got your finger on the pulse of part of what’s wrong with our democracy.

Alda: Well, I guess I must have just resonated with the culture as it was happening because I didn’t know it was going to be so apt when I was working on it. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years.

But what it came out of was all these years I spent not only interviewing people on the science program which I did for 11 years, but the decades before that learning to be an actor, which really involves the very things you need to communicate, listening deeply, truly, you know.

Tavis: You don’t just write this stuff. I mean, you didn’t just write it. You teach the stuff.

Alda: Yeah, and I helped start a center. It’s now called the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook University. We’ve taught over 8,000 scientists and doctors to communicate better around the country and across the world, so we have a lot of experience. I’m doing it for eight years, so I have a lot of experience to draw on.

Tavis: Other than the fact that you did the science program, is there a particular reason why you started with scientists and doctors to teach them?

Alda: It was mainly because there’s a program because I was learning so much from the scientists that I talked to and the reason I was learning was because we didn’t have a conventional interview. We did it the way you do it, which was just a conversation. And I saw the real them coming out. I saw their passion for science. I saw their sense of humor if they had one.

But whoever they really were came out and I thought I want scientists as they learn their science to learn how to do this so that they can communicate their passion for science and some of what science is like. Because we don’t know what science is really like. We hear one year red wine’s great for you. Next year, we hear it’s not so good for you.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Alda: And we think, “Well, they can’t make up their minds” or “It’s just another opinion.” It’s not an opinion and no research study is the be all and end all. There’s always more that needs to be known. I wanted all that to come out, so I wanted scientists to communicate better. And that’s why I started working on teaching scientists.

Tavis: I suspect — and I say this with all the love in my heart for scientists — but I suspect if you can get scientists to communicate better, you can pretty much make it work with anybody else.

Alda: But what my next goal is, I work with a friend, Steve Strogatz, who’s a mathematician at Cornell, and we’re going to finally collaborate and he’s leading the project to teach mathematicians to communicate. That’s really a course. They don’t even understand one another, according to Steve [laugh].

Steve told me this story. This is one mathematician talking about others, so I’m not running down mathematicians when I say this. Steve said, “You know how you can tell an introverted mathematician from an extroverted mathematician? The extrovert is staring at your shoes.” [laugh].

Tavis: That’s funny [laugh].

Alda: But we all have that problem.

Tavis: We do.

Alda: None of us relate as much as we really could if we really concentrated on it.

Tavis: I guess the question is whether or not these tools and these techniques for communicating better can be learned by and employed by everyday people. Not to suggest that you and I are not everyday people, but you’re trained as an actor.

I’m not trained as a talk show host — and it probably shows up every night [laugh], but I’ve been doing it for a while now. So I’m pretty decent at being a generous listener, I think. But are these tools and techniques things that everyday people can learn?

Alda: I think so. I don’t think you can learn it out of a book. I suspect you can’t, but what I suggest in the book is ways you can go through experiences that teach you. I think it has to be a little bit like going to a gym. You don’t go to a gym once and get muscular and never have to go back. Going to a gym feels good when you leave.

This connecting with other people and getting better at it feels good while you’re doing it, so there’s at least an impulse to try it, to get better at it.

Tavis: You got a lot of great advice in this book. As I said, I couldn’t wait to get into it and read it, given what I do every day, and see what I could learn to be better at my assignment. But one of the things that I’ve always believed, Alan, is that to be a great communicator, to be a good communicator, you have to be a curious person.

If you’re only interested in hearing yourself talk or think you know everything, so much of being a great communicator ironically starts with being curious, which means you learn to be a great listener.

Alda: And you’re focused on something outside yourself. It’s hard to be curious about yourself, but if you’re curious about what the other person has to say and things that you don’t expect them to say. I always love to hear something come out of somebody that I never expected them to say. That keeps everything alive, I think. It makes life interesting, you know.

Tavis: There are some things in here that most of us, you know, professionals at least, have heard at some point or another. But tell me more of what you learned about the science of body language in conversation.

Alda: Yeah, it’s very interesting. There’s a lot of things that science seems to validate about many of the things I talk about. A lot of what I say is common sense, but under that common sense understanding that you need to connect with other people, there’s the suggestion that you can go deeper than common sense suggests you go.

And there are some things that have been suggested by scientific research that I find really fascinating. Because this idea of syncing up with another person, a couple of professors, I think, at Stanford had groups of people walking around the campus. Some just walking and other groups walking in step with one another, marching in the same rhythm.

At the end of that time, they took a test that would determine how concerned they were about the other people, whether they were in tune with the other people, willing to do good for the other people, not obstruct them.

It was higher. They rated higher on that after they had marched in step. Now that sounds strange and crazy, but there is when we do things in sync, you know, there’s the common thing of mimicking the other person’s body language.

We’re both sitting forward. If one of us did this for a while, the other would be liable to do it. There was a tendency to do that. We have a natural tendency to get in sync with the other person. If we follow that through, my experience has been that we actually can convey things to the other person that we might not otherwise be able to convey.

Sometimes complicated things, things that are hard to hear, we find the right words because we’re not thinking about what the right words ought to be nearly so much as we’re thinking about how the other person is getting it. That’s the difference. It’s so easy to think good communication is me getting the perfect message. What good is the perfect message if it doesn’t land on you?

Tavis: See, that’s why I love you because you do this so well. In hosting this show for 11 years, you have the science to back all this up. I don’t have the science per se because I sit here every night and do this.

Alda: Well, you do. I mean, you see it work and you see it not work.

Tavis: Exactly. And so much of what I’ve learned about communicating has to do with sitting here every night talking to people. So what you’ve said now really resonates with me. It’s what I call rhythm. Everybody has a rhythm. We have a rhythm in how we talk.

Alda: Yeah, that’s interesting.

Tavis: Every guest on this program has a rhythm, and I’m trying through the course of the conversation to find the rhythm.

Alda: Find the rhythm. That’s really good.

Tavis: It’s the way they speak. It’s the pace with which they speak, when they pause. Everybody has a rhythm.

Alda: So do you copy that rhythm? Do you get into the rhythm with them?

Tavis: Hopefully, the audience doesn’t — I mean, the audience feels it, but they don’t really know it. But in the first five minutes of every conversation, I’m trying to find your rhythm.

Alda: This is so interesting.

Tavis: Yeah. Everybody has one.

Alda: So you ought to look up that research and see how it applies to that. Maybe you’d find somebody who…

Tavis: Believe me. That’s why your book is…

Alda: Look at page 22 in my book [laugh].

Tavis: I will [laugh]. That’s why I told you. I already have. That’s what I’m saying. This book in so many ways, Alan, is a validation of what I know from practicing this and doing this every night.

Alda: Well, I can’t wait to read your book on practically the same subject.

Tavis: Yeah, well, yours is…

Alda: We’re leading through listening.

Tavis: Leading by listening, yeah.

Alda: Leading by listening. So, see, I got stuff in there about that because I really find in the few times and the limited ways I have to be a leader, I’m a boss of other people sometimes. I listen as much as I possibly can, try to find out what’s going on in there. Why am I getting this back from them without saying, “Why am I getting this back from you?” [laugh]

Tavis: What did you learn about communicating, listening, and the role that empathy plays in that?

Alda: I think it’s essential. I don’t think you can communicate very well, at least, without empathy. But I use my own version of what I mean by empathy because a lot of people think — a lot of people have different ideas of what empathy is. I think it’s important to say what your definition is. My definition is that it’s just a way of trying to figure out what’s going on in the other person’s emotional life.

I don’t think empathy automatically makes you a good person. It doesn’t make you sympathetic. It doesn’t make you compassionate. It doesn’t make you do good deeds. If you want to do good deeds, empathy can really help you make some good progress. But I think there’s something that I think of as dark empathy, which is using peoples’ emotions against them. Bullies…

Tavis: Exploiting them, yeah.

Alda: Exploiting their emotions, finding out how you feel and getting you to do what I want, to sell you things, to make you — well, there’s a whole bunch. Bullies are really good at using your feelings against you. They know how badly you feel.

Tavis: We had a guest on this program — not to make you political — but we had a guest on this program some months ago, a professor at Berkeley, George Lakoff, brilliant professor in linguistics.

He came on this program and really broke down why Trump is such an effective communicator, which is to say why on the campaign trail the way he speaks, the words he chose, the way he got his message across, why he was so effective. I raise all that to ask what chapter do you want me to recommend President Trump read first [laugh]?

Alda: Well, in certain ways, he doesn’t have to because he knows how to work a crowd. You can use empathy to work a crowd. You can see — I mean, this is not taking a stand one way or another politically, but I think you can observe in his campaign talks how he would say something to get a response.

Tavis: Sure.

Alda: And in the same moment, a second later, say it again with a little twist to get a better response until he had developed a rallying cry. The thing we’re going through now where we really do demonize one another, we hear just a word or two and we already know what the other person thinks.

Tavis: That’s right.

Alda: We don’t bother to find out if there’s any depth to it or some turn on it that they have. It would really help if we would listen for that thing underneath that we might both have in common.

If we have something in common that we both love our country or that we both grew up in the same place, we went to the same high school, anything that we have in common, we can at least hang onto that and find out if there are other things in we have in common.

And if we could share with each other how we got to the point of view we have, if I see how you got to that, I might have much more compassion for your holding the opinion. We got to work together somehow or we’re doomed.

Tavis: That last point, my friends, is the point. This is why I recommend this book for Republicans and Democrats [laugh], black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics [laugh].

Alda: “Now look here, my friends. You got trouble in River City.” [laugh]

Tavis: The book is called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” — I love the title — “My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating” from perennial New York Times bestselling author and fine actor and a great man, Alan Alda. Good to have you back on, my friend.

Alda: Thank you.

Tavis: Appreciate you.

Alda: Great.

Tavis: Up next, musician Benjamin Booker. Stay with us.

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Last modified: June 16, 2017 at 3:57 pm