Alan Alda's secret to better communication? Have a little more empathy.

Aug 13, 2017

Actor Alan Alda is on a mission to help scientists make their research more relatable to the public. He even co-founded an organization at New York’s Stony Brook University, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, to get the message out.

Alda’s insights are drawn from decades spent getting inside the heads of audiences. Some of the techniques he suggests for scientists may seem strange at first, like trying to speak in sync with another person, or explain to middle-schoolers what a flame is. But according to Alda, there’s really one simple ingredient to effective communication, no matter who you are. It’s empathy.

“The other person, the person you’re trying to communicate with, is the one you have to focus on,” he says. “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 what your audience is thinking, he admits. But he wants you to give it a try. “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,” he says.

In the past eight years, the center has trained 8,000 scientists and doctors in workshops, and reached another 30,000 people through talks, Alda says. Now, he’s written a book about communicating for everyone, called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” In one anecdote, he recalls returning from a visit to the European nuclear research center, CERN, just after scientists had discovered the Higgs boson.

“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?’” he explains. “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,” Alda says. “If she didn’t say that — if she didn’t stop me — I would have gone on and on and been talking more and more Greek to her.”

He says that moment illustrates the importance, for speakers, of being even better listeners than the people they’re speaking with — which in itself is a form of empathy. “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,” he says, like their body language and tone of voice.

As you learn to adjust communication to your audience, “It enables a closer connection, a more personal connection, to the person you’re trying to communicate with,” Alda says. “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.” And as he explains, that personal connection can go a long way in conversation, even when you’re discussing thorny or complex topics.

“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,” he says.

“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,” he adds. “Some door opens. A channel opens up.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow. 

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