Alan Alda thinks we could all be better listeners

He also wants me to change my Instagram handle.

July 10, 2018
Alan Alda thinks we could all be better listeners Matthew Eisman / Getty Images

My Instagram handle is @alanaldaofficial. It’s mostly a joke, because I am very clearly not Alan Alda. Alda is an Oscar-nominated actor whose work spans decades, and I am a 22-year-old who always takes two tries to spell “separate” correctly.

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When I tell Alda about my Instagram, he laughs. “You call yourself Alan Alda?” I explain to him that sometimes people will meet him and tag me. “Do you mind calling yourself NotAlanAlda,” he says, laughing some more. It’s this affability that makes him the perfect person to host a podcast, which is exactly what he's doing now.

Clear and Vivid is all about the ways in which we communicate with one another and how we can be better at doing so. It turns out that this has been a passion project of his for a while. For years he hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, a show where he would travel around and interview scientists about their work. In order to get them to speak plainly, Alda used the skills he had learned through acting to listen and get people to open up. Now he’s opening up the discussion to other people whose field requires them to require them to listen and be listened to. His podcasts guests include Sarah Silverman, Itzhak Perlman, Judge Judy, and more.

On a Monday afternoon last month, Alda came into the FADER office (can you believe that’s a real sentence??) to talk about empathy, how to be less of a dick on Twitter, and how we can all start listening a little better.

Do you want to start by telling me about the podcast?

The podcast is called Clear and Vivid. The idea is that it’s based on the last 25 years I’ve spent learning about what makes good communication and real relating. So that led to my setting up a center of communicating sciences at Stony Brook University.

I read your book about it.

Oh you did?

Yeah I read it when I learned I was gonna interview you. And I was like, Oh, he’s a master interviewer.

Well good, I see you’re using the same technique I do which is not a whole lot of notes. So the idea is, I realized in teaching scientists that it works for doctors. And in teaching them I realized it works for all of us. Some scientists were saying to us, You know this training is saving my marriage. You know because it’s really based on what everybody in America wants which is to be listened to, to be heard. And what we help people learn how to do is get clues from the person they’re talking to so they can tell whether they understand them, agree with them, are confused, or thinking about something else that’s important to get into.

How do you suggest going about discussing politics with people who we know don’t agree with us?

I think communication is essential, but the basis of it is listening with respect. When you’re communicating with somebody else and you want them to hear your point of view, you have to listen to them more than they’re listening to you. You have to listen better. If you indicate by what you say that the other person is stupid, doesn’t have facts, is a fool for believing what they believe, and both sides give the other this impression, we’re not gonna get anywhere.

“I think communication is essential, but the basis of it is listening with respect.“
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Do you have a good story of a time where you had to really, effectively communicate with someone?

When I was very young trying to support myself, not just myself but my whole family, I had three children right away. I was trying to sell mutual funds. The problem I didn’t really realize I had was that I thought selling was getting the money for something that I would provide them with. The whole point of selling is not to get their money but to help them get what they need, what they really need. Maybe not even what you’ll get the most money out of, or maybe not what they think they need, but if you can help them get what they really need then you’ll not only have a customer, you’ll probably have a customer for life. So the attention on the other person: What’s the other person’s point of view? Who are they? Where are they in their lives? Where are they right now at this minute as you talk to them? You can only get a good estimate of it, but the attempt to do it puts you in contact with them.

I like the idea that the attempt of communication is a step in and of itself. It opens some kind of door.

Right. If you’re having a political conversation or you sense one’s coming, it’s sort of like do unto others what you want them to do to you. You don’t want them to say to you, You know what’s wrong with you! Internet conversation, for instance, Here’s what I think. Well you don’t know what you’re talking about. Why don’t you check your facts. You’re an idiot. You should die. That’s a common thread.

How into the internet are you?

I am interested in how people interact with one another on Twitter. I’m surprised at how much I’m drawn through threads to see people try to argue with each other and then give up in frustration.

What would you suggest to someone who frequently finds themselves getting into spats online? Log off?

I don’t know if everybody can do this, but our first episode [of the podcast] is with Sarah Silverman. The reason that I wanted to talk to her is that she did an amazing thing on Twitter. Somebody posted a one word message to her, which was the c-word. That’s all the guy said. And instead of blocking him or yelling at him on Twitter, cursing him out. She looked up his profile and she saw how much pain he was in. His back was killing him. She wrote him and said, “I see how much pain you’re in. I have a painful back too. But you have other pain.” I forget what else she said, but he answered her and said he had been abused as a child. She recommended a place where he could get therapy for free. He’s taking the therapy, it’s changing his life, and they’re in communication all the time. It’s an extraordinary story.

That’s kind of like, what you would hope would come from a story like that.

And I don’t know if everyone can do what she did, or if everyone will respond the way he did. But she sensed something in him. She didn’t just think about the offensive thing he said. And she’s got other stories that are extraordinary, about communicating. Her whole effort now is to try to get people to listen to one another and be funny about it at the same time. So, that’s an example of someone who has a really interesting story of communicating that you don’t expect.

Vintage Alda havin' a ball.  
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Was getting a lot of different kinds of people important to you starting out with the podcast?

Yeah, because I didn’t want to hit the same nail on the head every time. But, as different as they are, they all have to deal with this problem of communication. How does communication affect Itzhak Perlman, the great violinist or Renée Fleming, the great opera singer or Ann Patchett, the great novelist. See there’s an example of someone who has to get into the lives of a lot of characters and how she does that can give us insight into how to get into the minds of our mothers when we can’t agree with them.

Did you feel that in recording the podcast that anyone was at all standoffish? Did you have to use your expert communicating skills on them?

Once in a while I had that experience, but usually not. If that happened, in that interview or in any other interview, I’ve done hundreds of interviews with scientists mostly, and usually where there’s a little problem or a little hitch is if they won’t let me in to ask them a question I’m really curious about. And instead they want to just give me their line of talk without pause. A good conversation is not like a conventional interview. A conventional interview is I ask you a question and you go on and on with this essay you’ve prepared and it doesn’t matter what I care about, you just want to finish it. But I want to break in with questions because you say things along the way that are interesting. And it helps the audience digest it too in clumps of curiosity rather than in a long chapter you have to tell me.

Sometimes I feel like when you read an interview, you’ll read someone’s answer and see a little nugget and wonder why the interviewer didn’t ask more about that thing.

You hear it in live interviews too. You can tell they’ve gone in with a set of questions and they feel that they have to hit every question. I put about ten questions on a sheet of paper, and then I don’t look at it. But having done that, in the back of my head if the conversation lags I know i have something to go to that’ll get it moving again. But then I’m just operating after that on curiosity, just reacting to what they’re saying. What I’m after is good conversation. A good conversation is communication. Even if you’re standing up on a platform alone talking to 500 people, if it’s not a conversation it’s not gonna work. In acting for instance, when you have a monologue, most actors realize at some point that the monologue is really a bunch of short responses to what the person is saying or thinking as you move through the monologue. You shouldn’t know what you’re going to say next. It should be prompted by the other person or your own thinking process.

I wonder if, and tell me what you think about this, that people sometimes go into a conversation and see it as something to win or lose.

I think that’s the enemy of good communication. It’s the enemy of cooperation and collaboration. If the only thing you see is winning, you’re not going to be successful in a negotiation or even a simple conversation. All the experts in negotiation say that both sides need to feel that they’ve won something. And both sides will feel they’ve lost something, but one hopes that they’ll feel like what they’ve lost is minor compared to what they’ve gained. And if you gain a collaboration partner out of a negotiation, then you’ve gained something for the future that’s valuable. I don’t want to leave someone, either with a sale or a negotiation, feeling that they’ve been screwed.

What’s the best tidbit of knowledge someone has shared on the podcast so far?

Judge Judy, I was just reading over her conversation in the car on the way over, and she has negotiating tricks she uses. And she says, “What I’m doing with these people is really a negotiation to try to settle this dispute in as fair a way as possible.” And she has ways of presenting her thoughts in a negotiation. I think one of her tricks is not giving the impression she’s insisting on something. She has this extraordinary ability to listen to people and decide pretty quickly whether they’re lying or not. I was very interested to know how she did that, and I think that it’s just listening deeply.

How does one get better at empathy?

Paying attention. I pay attention to your face. I deliberately try to notice what color your eyes are, that you’re wearing glasses. When I wasn’t paying attention I said to somebody I’d been working with for several years, “You know, you have a beard.” Sometimes it just confuses you, you stop thinking for a second while you’re taking the person in, but the ultimate advantage is you’ve really paid attention to them and you’ll hear what they’re really saying a little better, what they mean. The tone of voice, the body language, all of that is part of communication. You’re not really listening unless you’re letting the whole person in.

Do you think acting, or being a performer, makes you more adept at listening?

Well, writers and actors have as their job to get into the skin of other people. You can’t portray someone you don’t understand. You don’t say your next line because it’s written in the script, that would be boring, you say it because the other person makes you say it. That’s why they say acting is reacting. And if two people aren’t both doing that, it doesn’t look like two people it looks like dueling monologues. And that’s what people’s conversations look like very often, dueling monologues. They’re not listening at all to the other person.

Not to be embarrassing, but I’m thinking about how all of this works in relation to like, dating.

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I haven’t been on a date in 61 years.

Congratulations.

I think dates would go a lot better [if people listened to each other].

Sometimes I do think people come in and are like, “I’m going to tell you my life story,” and that’s what I’ve decided to do.

That’s why I don’t get haircuts anymore. The barber always has a story. My wife cuts my hair, and I know her life story. She only takes 10 minutes, I don’t know why barbers take a half an hour. I guess they have too much to tell you. I had one guy on a movie who cut my hair who told me everything that had ever happened to him, and acted it out. On and on with these made up conversations. Which sounds like I wasn’t interested in listening to him, and I wasn’t.

You can always tell when people just have something they want to say and it just bursts out of them at a time that doesn’t make sense.

And in times like that I guess it’s important to think, why are they telling me this? What do they really need? Is there some trouble here that I can help with? But if all they want to do is use you like an anonymous audience, they should get a Twitter account.

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