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?

How the Best Leaders Energize People Every Day

leaders unlock potential

How the Best Leaders Energize People

If you want to be a great leader, you must be a great communicator. The Inspiration Code: How the Best Leaders Energize People Every Day  explores the link between leadership and communication.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach specializing in executive communication. You may have read one of her articles in “Forbes” or encountered her other book, The Power of Presence . Her extensive research and survey into what inspires people was fascinating. I recently asked Kristi about her latest work on inspiration in the workplace.

 

“When we highlight potential, we boost confidence.” -Kristi Hedges

 

4 Factors to Enhance Your Inspirational Effect

Tell me more about the four factors that enhance our inspirational effect, what you call the Inspire Path.

The Inspire Path puts a structure to the research I found that uncovers what communication behaviors inspire others. It’s a guide to increase inspirational impact. While we can’t force someone to be inspired—and if we try to push, it backfires—we can create the conditions that foster inspiration. People are most often inspired through certain types of conversation with others. If we want be more inspiring, we should focus on being:

 

“What we concentrate on gets stronger.” -Kristi Hedges

 

PRESENT: investing our full attention and letting conversations flow

 

PERSONAL: speaking genuinely, listening generously, and acknowledging the potential of those around us

 

PASSIONATE: exhibiting sincere emotion and exuding energy attuned to the situation

 

PURPOSEFUL: helping others find meaning and see their place in the bigger picture

 

Copyright Kristi Hedges, All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

 

“Our choices bring our purpose in sharp relief.” -Kristi Hedges

 

How do you train Type-A, driven, device-obsessed executives to be more present?

Leadership Step by Step: Become the Person Others Follow

Mastering Leadership Concepts

Learning how to lead. It’s the focus of many lectures, articles, blog posts, and books. Joshua Spodek prefers the active to the passive, teaching with exercises designed to master leadership concepts.

He recently wrote a book titled Leadership Step by Step: Become the Person Others Follow that takes this teaching approach. His background includes a mix of academic and corporate experience, allowing his coaching methods to incorporate the best of both. I recently spoke with him about his new book and his approach to leadership.

 

“What holds people back isn’t not knowing what skills to have but how to get them and use them effectively.” -Joshua Spodek

 

What Holds People Back

You bristle at the question of what qualities make someone a leader. Why?

Every book and resource lists qualities of effective leadership: integrity, self-awareness, resilience, empathy, listening skills, and so on. Popular terms now include grit and hustle.

Almost everyone knows what qualities make leaders effective. What holds people back isn’t not knowing what skills to have but how to get them and use them effectively. The techniques of nearly every book, video, MOOC, and every other resource are to teach people intellectually what they need.

But intellectually knowing that self-awareness is important doesn’t increase yours. I know the principles of playing piano. But I haven’t practiced, so I can’t play. Those least self-aware know least what to do about it, despite needing it most. The same goes for any social or emotional leadership quality.

You can’t lecture someone into integrity. No amount of reading will develop grit.

To develop social and emotional skills, you need to take on social and emotional challenges. Lectures, case studies, biography, and psychology papers may be intellectually challenging, but they are socially and emotionally passive and therefore ineffective at teaching social and emotional skills.

 

“There is no glory in practice, but without practice there is no glory.” -Unknown

 

Learn How to Lead

Is that what you mean when you say that business school taught you about leadership but not how to lead?

Exactly. Business school taught me principles but gave me little practice using them. Discussing a case study of someone else’s life will teach you something. I’m not saying lectures and case studies are worthless, but they can’t substitute for facing personal challenges.

After graduation, I learned leadership skills in practice, but I doubt it was any faster than had I not learned the principles.

Going to a top-5 school didn’t help. The more elite the school, the more the professors got there through publishing or perishing, not facing social and emotional challenges.

 

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” -Vince Lombardi

 

So what’s the alternative? Skipping school?

I struggled with that question, especially after noticing how many great leaders dropped out or were kicked out of school: Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Sean Combs, Michael Dell, Elon Musk, … the list goes on.

leadrshpstepbystepI wondered: did school hurt?

Two observations resolved the situation for me: How you learn is as important as what you learn.

The first was seeing how many top actors had tremendous emotional and social skills, coming off as tremendously genuine and authentic, yet dropped out of school, often high school. I learned that they didn’t stop learning. They switched to a different style of learning.

The other was connecting with the project-based learning and teaching community. I found that their students developed leadership skills that MBAs would dream of, but without taking leadership classes.

 

How does that play out in practice?

I learned that experiential, active learning is more effective for fields like leadership that are active, social, emotional, expressive, and performance-based. Plenty of fields are like that besides leadership and acting: playing musical instruments, athletics, dance, singing, improv, the military.

In all of them we teach through practice and rehearsal. When you master the basics, you move to intermediate skills. When you master them, you move to advanced.

Only with leadership do we start with theory. Compare the quality of athletes and musicians our nation creates with the quality of our leaders, or rather people with authority.

That’s why so many great leaders emerge from sports, acting, the military, and places outside academia. Look at your page on leadership insights, http://www.skipprichard.com/leadership-insights: the first people I see are baseball player R. A. Dickey, athlete/actor Chuck Norris, and basketball player Bill Bradley.

 

Try a New Approach

Can you clarify how you teach if not traditionally?

I teach and coach by giving students and clients an integrated, comprehensive progression of exercises starting with basics and leading, with no big anxiety-causing jumps, to skills so useful and advanced that most seasoned leaders would learn from them.

The exercises have you do things with people you know on projects you care about, so you face social and emotional challenges, but in safe contexts, so you don’t risk your job to develop the skills. It’s like practicing piano alone, then doing small recitals, and so on to get to Carnegie Hall.spodek

My exercises are like scales in piano or footwork in dance. Basics are valuable at every level. Look at the top seeds at Wimbledon before finals. They practice their ground strokes. LeBron still practices layups and jump shots.

I call how I teach Method Learning, after Method Acting, which is what we call the style of learning and practice for acting, and it produces Method Leaders. It’s not just acting. All the fields I listed above use the same technique.

You develop greatness, genuineness, and authenticity the same in leadership as in any of these other fields: Practice, practice, practice!

My book has stop signs after each exercise description saying, “Put the book down. Go practice. Reading about lifting weights doesn’t make you strong.”

 

“Reading about lifting weights doesn’t make you strong.”

 

Then what’s the role of a teacher or coach for a leader?

5 Important Aspects of Making a Positive First Impression

This is a guest post by Susanne Loxton. Susanne is a writer with a passion for learning and education at Aubiz. Follow her on Twitter here.

Meeting a new business contact can be nerve-wracking. Just like a first date, your first impression is of the utmost importance, as it can determine the trajectory of the arrangement. And while rehearsing what you are going to say and arguments you intend to make can be helpful, a major part of making a good first impression has to do with unspoken qualities such as body language, hygiene, and preparedness. Below you will find a few aspects that should always be at the front of your mind when you schedule a meeting.

1. Research before the meeting

Find out as much as you can about the client and company involved in the meeting. Learn about their goals, values, and interests. Use LinkedIn to get a sense of the person’s background or find common threads. Prepare some questions based on your research, and get ready to make it clear they are important to you.


“He who does not research has nothing to teach.” -Proverb

2. Keep your non-verbals in check

Your body language is capable of communicating almost as much as your actual words, so it’s important to be intentional with it. Remember to maintain good posture—no slouching! Not only will slouching communicate a lack of confidence and composure, but also it isn’t great for your back. You may have also guessed that a firm handshake is important, too. Make sure that your handshake is indeed firm, but also keep in mind that it isn’t a test of strength and should not be overly firm.


Tip: Your body language communicates as much as your words.

3. Dress appropriately

While meetings often take place outside of the office, that’s no excuse to go uber casual on the clothing front. Take some time to consider the right outfit, whether it be a full suit or something business casual. Of course, this will depend on the industry. Silicon Valley is a good example of the shift in attitudes toward dress, as jeans paired with blazers or black turtleneck sweaters grow in popularity, even among people in leadership positions. But when in doubt, dress up.


“Dressing well is a form of good manners.” -Tom Ford

4. Demonstrate that you’re listening

Leadership Lessons from Downton Abbey

This is a guest post by friend and mentor Bruce Rhoades, who retired after having run several companies. He often helps me with strategy. I am delighted that he is a regular contributor.

Lessons from Downton Abbey

After six seasons, the popular PBS series Downton Abbey has ended. As the series unfolded, we watched the characters evolve through many changes in their society and personal lives. As the characters changed and matured, there were numerous lessons and wisdom for life demonstrated in the show.

 

“Leadership through visible action is always effective.” -Bruce Rhoades

 

Each of these characters also demonstrated leadership attributes that can be learned from watching them deal with the various situations that confronted them.

Here are a few of the leadership lessons exhibited by the characters:

 

Lesson from Lord Grantham: Often the ‘best man for the job’ is a woman.

 

Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham

  • No strategy will work forever. Watch for environmental and market changes and adapt.
  • Learn to delegate to those who are more suited to new endeavors. Take their advice, trust them and start small.
  • For long-term viability, a leader needs to groom successors and allow others to exercise their talent.
  • A successful leader needs to attract those with complementary skills to his/her own, then allow them to take action.
  • Often the “best man for the job” is a woman.

 

“A successful leader needs to attract those with complementary skills, then allow them to take action.” –Bruce Rhoades

 

 

Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham

  • Communication, patience and being non-judgmental are necessary to allow others to adapt to change.
  • Sometimes it is most effective to act quietly and consistently in small ways to effect change. Open confrontation elicits defensiveness in others.
  • Open acceptance and acknowledgement of others builds trust and opens communication.
  • Sometimes keeping the peace in the short term provides opportunities for change in the long term.

 

“Keep the peace in the short term to allow change in the long term.” –Bruce Rhoades

 

Mr. Carson, the Butler

  • Giving orders works in the short term but does not create lasting change or personal growth in others.
  • Be respectful of those in your charge, you may need them later to move forward.
  • Failure to acknowledge change weakens your leadership.
  • Expecting perfection limits and stifles the efforts of those around you.
  • Management by intimidation does not create loyalty.

 

“Expecting perfection limits and stifles the efforts of those around you.” –Bruce Rhoades

 

“Management by intimidation does not create loyalty.” –Bruce Rhoades

 

“Failure to acknowledge change weakens your leadership.” –Bruce Rhoades

 

Lady Mary Crawley

  • Wisdom can come from any level in the organization.
  • Arrogance does not foster collaboration, trust or effective leadership.
  • Putting others down does not build you up.
  • For continued success, a leader must acknowledge change and act accordingly.

 

“Wisdom can come from any level in the organization.” –Bruce Rhoades

 

“Putting others down does not build you up.” –Bruce Rhoades

 

Lady Edith Crawley

  • Truthfulness will always yield the best, lasting results.
  • Do not overcomplicate the situation and delay action.
  • Measured risk-taking and action builds confidence.
  • Don’t let the future be dictated by the past.

 

“Measured risk-taking and action builds confidence.” –Bruce Rhoades

 

Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess

  • Deal with the situation, not the person. Acceptance of the person creates trust.
  • Ignoring a changing environment does not solve anything.
  • Know when to let others take the lead.
  • Sometimes a leader needs to give stern, unpopular advice.
  • Humor can reduce tension and create a more open atmosphere.