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?

Warning: Your Job is At Risk

Rethinking Excellence in the Smart Machine Age

 

Artificial intelligence will change everything. It’s coming. In some areas, it has already arrived.

Take Amazon. Its new grocery store has no cashiers and no baggers.

How about water meter readers? Just yesterday someone appeared at our door explaining that those days are over for our neighborhood.

And it’s not only these jobs that are changing. Millions of jobs will be affected from manufacturing to services.

Machines have access to more data than we do. They can analyze it faster than we can.

 

“We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines or we can be arrogant and die.” -Norbert Wiener

 

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. In addition to fifteen years in academia, he also spent twenty years as a business executive. His research is in high performance in the midst of change.

He argues that we need to change our definition of smart. We need a new smart. We need to be good at what machines can’t do well. His new book, co-authored with Katherine Ludwig, is Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age.

I recently spoke with him about the changes ahead.

 

“A good listener is totally focused on the speaker with an open mind.” -Hess, Ludwig

 

Millions of Jobs Will be Automated

What jobs will be automated?

Over the next decade or so, tens of millions of service and professional jobs will be automated along with more manufacturing jobs. Service jobs that are at risk include retail, fast-food, manual laborers and construction workers, truck drivers, accountants, administrative people, paralegals, customer service reps, and security guards. Increasingly, professional jobs will be automated reducing the number of professional workers needed in the fields of accounting, law, finance, consulting, marketing, strategy, management, journalism, medicine and architecture.  The Chief Economist of the Bank of England in November of 2015 predicted that over the next decade or two 80,000,000 jobs in the United States could be automated.

 

How to Prepare for the Smart Age