Alan Alda on The Art & Science of Relating and Communicating

The Art and Science of Communication

Alan Alda needs no introduction. He played Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, appeared on ER, The West Wing, and he’s appeared in numerous films from Crimes and Misdemeanors to Bridge of Spies. For eleven years, he hosted the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers, and he founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He has also won seven Emmy Awards and received three Tony nominations, is an inductee in the Television Hall of Fame, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Aviator.

For many years, he has been studying communication. His latest book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating will have you laughing and contemplating the art of communication. You’ll find his insights and tips immediately useful in both business and personal settings.

I recently spoke with him about his latest work.

 

“Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.” –Alan Alda

 

It’s a gross understatement to say that you see things differently. For instance, most people don’t go through a difficult surgery at the dentist, one messing up your smile, and end up with ideas about improving communication. I’m interested in two aspects of this experience.

 One, how did it inspire you?

The experience of a dentist’s poking in my mouth with a scalpel — without seeming to care if I understood his terse one-word description of the after-effects – was pretty much the essence of poor communication. All he said was, “Now, there will be some tethering.” What? Tethering? “Tethering. Tethering!” He just kept saying the same word over and over. Too cowed, I let him go ahead, and my smile after that was really suitable for playing villains.

He knew what he meant, but he didn’t notice that I wasn’t getting it. To the extent he did notice, it made him impatient. That story has come back to me many times, especially the more I see that it’s up to us who are trying to communicate something to be aware of what’s going on in the other person’s head.

 

“People are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another.” –Alan Alda

 

And two, have you always had a unique way of viewing the world or was this cultivated over time?

I don’t know if this is unique, but some of my earliest memories are of trying to figure out how things got that way, or why adults were behaving the way they were. My mother was schizophrenic and paranoid, and I always had to check her reality against real reality. I think that helped me question things and always check them out from another point of view.

 

 

The Importance of Relating

Your book starts off talking about the importance of relating. I’m struck by your humility. You’re always up front with your mistakes, what you should have done, what you didn’t know at the time. For example, you say:

My first blunder was assuming that I knew more than I did.”

I was paying more attention to my own assumptions than I was to him.”

I wasn’t listening.”

And then your story teaches us about relating, but also, we immediately relate to you because of your openness. Is this a relating tactic?

3 Ways to Get in the Champ’s Corner

boxing ring
This is a guest post by brand strategist Robin Fisher Roffer. Robin is the Founder & CEO of Big Fish Marketing, Inc. She has launched and evolved dozens of media brands all over the world from A&E, Animal Planet, to Lifetime, MTV, and TNT. Her book, Your No Fear Career and audiobook Make a Name for Yourself is now available.

 

Get in the Champ’s Corner

Being trusted and valued by a business champion means helping them fight competitors, round-after-round.  

While watching the McGregor vs. Mayweather fight, I found myself focused on the guys in each champion’s corner. On both sides, they mirrored the fighter’s personal style and brand. Mayweather’s big, imposing team wore all black and bling. They looked like they could be working the door at an exclusive Vegas club. McGregor’s fashionable posse resembled members of a boy band in black vests, pants, white shirts and ties.

The men in each corner were there to do more than psych up their champs, throw down strategy, give water and Vaseline faces—they were there to make Mayweather and McGregor feel and look like winners.

Professionals who finally make it to the C-Suite and business owners who have built their companies beyond their wildest dreams often find themselves no longer able to authentically count on the people around them. They look around and say, “Who can I really trust?  Who can I count on to tell me the truth?  Who’s really in my corner?”

 

Who’s In Your Corner?

It’s true that it’s lonely at the top. Who can you trust when you’ve made it? Who’s in your corner?

Years ago, when I was an executive at Turner Broadcasting, I would have lunch with the heads of each network on a monthly basis. Although they were presidents and I was just a director, they took the meetings because they felt I was in their corner– cheering on their vision, giving them winning strategies and making them feel like champs.

At one lunch, I asked CNN’s president, ‘‘What do you think your audience isn’t ‘getting’ about your network that they should know?’’ He answered, “That we break news first.” From there, I came up with a strategy to send 30-second “CNN Hot Spots” to affiliates when the network was first to cover a big story.

Today, I still zero in on what is uniquely important to my clients. During a recent branding workshop with a digital agency, I asked the executives, ‘‘What do we want the industry to say about us?” Asking questions like this means you’re in the ring with them, taking a keen interest in their agenda, product, and future.

 

Leadership Tip: Championing the leaders’ vision builds your executive presence.

 

Championing the vision of the company leader builds your executive presence and puts you inside the ring.

Many roads lead to career growth and vitality. I’ve found that being part of the leader’s posse and a champion of his or her vision is the quickest route. It’s not about brown nosing; it’s about being seen as integral to the company and its success.

Here are three ways you can get in the champ’s corner and help your leader beat the competition and deliver a knockout, just like Mayweather:

1. Tell the Truth

How to Unlock Happiness at Work

happiness

Fuel Purpose, Passion and Performance

 

Do you make happiness a priority at work?

Most business leaders are focused on growing their business or their profits. They focus on the numbers, on market share, on strategy. But there’s growing evidence that focusing on employee happiness is the key to creating sustainable success. Not only do I agree, but I’ve experienced this first hand in the companies I have had the privilege to lead. If you help employees increase their fulfillment, express their unique gifts, and live out their purpose, you will fuel happiness and see dramatically improved results.

The evidence to support this focus on happiness is masterfully compiled in Jennifer Moss’ book, Unlocking Happiness at Work. She distills decades of research and data and then lays out an actionable book with immediate guidance to leaders. If you want to ensure your team thrives, this book is a must-read. Jennifer is the co-founder of Plasticity Labs, committed to supporting people on their path to happiness. She and her co-founders were named Innovators of the Year by Canadian Business Magazine. I recently spoke with her about her findings.

 

“Happiness is a habit. Cultivate it.” -Elbert Hubbard

 

 

Your family story is compelling and provides a personal backdrop to your research. Tell us about Jim’s accident and how it impacted you.

In 2009, my husband Jim and I were living in San Jose, California. At the time, Jim was a professional lacrosse player, former Gold Medalist for Team Canada, who’d played in the World Cup on four professional teams. Obviously, he was a high-performing athlete who’d spent his entire life competing. It was why we were so shocked when the firefighters had to knock down the door to pick him up, race him to the ER, and then within hours he was diagnosed with West Nile, Swine Flu and a post-viral illness, Guillain Barré Syndrome (GBS), a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.

The response to treating Jim was all about acting fast. He would essentially experience a rebooting of his immune system through a treatment known as immunoglobulin (IVIG) therapy. IVIG therapy is an antibody (immunoglobulin) mixture, given (in Jim’s case) intravenously to treat or prevent a variety of diseases including GBS. It is extracted via the plasma of 10,000-50,000 donors. For Jim, and for our family, the treatment would be life-saving.

This is when the physicians shared both the good and the bad news. Jim would live. But, he may not recover fully.

Ok, we swallowed that statement. But what did that mean?

How to Increase Team and Company Morale and Performance

people skills

Increase Company Morale

 

People issues. Many leaders will tell you that people problems keep them up at night. From dealing with the under-performers to retaining and motivating the superstars, people problems dominate a leader’s thoughts.

One primary difference between a great culture and a poor one is this: a great culture has stars in every seat and a poor culture tolerates under-performers.

That’s what Trevor Throness explains in his new book, The Power of People Skills. His book teaches how to make the right people decisions. Don’t let the difficult people problems slow you down. His book is a helpful guide to everyone in management. I recently spoke with him about his work. Trevor is a coach who has helped hundreds of entrepreneurs and organizations fix people problems and build exceptional cultures.

 

“The one quality that all successful business leaders have in common is tenacity.” –Trevor Throness

 

Attracting A Players. Many say they want to do this, but they don’t put the time and resources in to show it’s a priority. Why is it so important?

It’s important because A Players are up to 300% more productive and valuable to you than others.  Think of your best person; wouldn’t you rather lose three other weaker players than lose him?  One great employee is worth three adequate employees.  The irony is that often the best employees cost nearly the same as the worst.  50% of medical doctors graduated in the bottom half of their class, but they all charge the same!

 

“A-Players are up to 300% more productive and valuable to you than others.” –Trevor Throness

 

2 People Myths

What are some of the people myths that affect many companies?

Here are two of the biggest myths:

  • People’s basic weaknesses will change if they’re coached

Often leaders believe that, through their expert intervention, the basic construct of someone’s personality will change.  “Sure, today they’re a quiet, detail-oriented person who prefers to work alone, but once I show them the way, they’ll become an aggressive leader!”  The truth is that leopards don’t change their spots.  The best case scenario for any employee is that he will become a better version of who he already is.  If you’re unhappy with the fundamentals of who he is, coaching is not going to fix that.

  • The point of coaching is to help people fix their weaknesses

The focus of coaching should be to capitalize on strengths, not to build a set of strong weaknesses.  When I’m coaching someone, and we’re discussing weaknesses, I’m hoping that the person will grow in self-awareness so she can see how her weaknesses affect her team and then moderate that behavior.  Mostly, however, I’m looking to adjust her role so that she can spend more of her day capitalizing on her strengths, doing what she was born to do, what makes her feel strong, and what accounts for most of her results.

 

“One great employee is worth three adequate employees.” –Trevor Throness

 

Which myth most surprises people?

Find a Common Mission to Engage Employees

thread

Find a Common Mission, Vision and Purpose

Despite billions of dollars of investments, organizations around the globe see employee engagement stagnant at only 13%.

David Harder, author of The Workplace Engagement Solution: Find a Common Mission, Vision, and Purpose With All of Today’s Employees, believes that CEO’s can successfully awaken the culture, and that you can create an enthusiastic culture and loyal customers. David is the founder of Inspired Work. Over 42,000 participants have engaged in his program to change careers, become better leaders, and launch businesses.

I asked him about his engagement ideas.

 

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” -Socrates

 

What are some of the characteristics of a culture that it truly “engaged”?

An engaged culture promotes continuous learning so that employees are not only growing, they are staying ahead of change. Even better, they are bringing positive change into the organization.

An engaged CEO or business owner leads an engaged culture. If she or he is disengaged from the culture, the employee population will also be disengaged.

An engaged culture recognizes that everyone walks in the door with various sets of life skills. Therefore, the organization makes sure everyone has the necessary life skills to change and engage. These include sales, presentations skills, the ability to influence, and clarity in how to build a vitally effective support system.

Self-reflection is encouraged in a strongly engaged culture. At Cornerstone on Demand, executives routinely ask questions such as, “What’s your next move?” “Where are you going next?”  After seven years employees are given a sabbatical for self-reflection. The point is, we cannot have engagement without a connection to one’s own truth. We have proven this thousands of times in our programs, which are question driven.

 

“More than 80% of America’s workers don’t like what they do for a living.” –David Harder

 

I’ve featured many people on this site talking about the problem of engagement. The stats are remarkable. We didn’t have sophisticated surveys years ago. Do you think this is a new phenomenon?

In the scheme of things, surveys are a bit old-school. The problem with surveys is they don’t produce change. Unless there is a solid commitment to produce an engaged culture, they often create more harm than good.

My point in The Workplace Engagement Solution: Find a Common Mission, Vision, and Purpose With All of Today’s Employees is that the majority of workers are checked-out, to various degrees. Getting them back requires a visionary commitment from the leadership but it also requires that we teach people how to change and engage. Notice that I rarely use one work without the other. Right now, according to a recent New York Times study, 48% of Americans view themselves as “underemployed.”  This is also a staggering number and yet it is reflective of workers at odds with keeping up with change.

 

Gallup: Only 13% of the world’s workers are engaged.

 

The Importance of Mission