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?

10 Challenges that Defined the Company Disrupting the World

Disrupt the World

Chances are you’ve been on it today. More than 1 billion users visit it daily. Most of us start our day and check our personalized news feed, see who is celebrating a birthday, and keep up with our friends and family on the platform. It’s worth over $400 billion and is in the rare air of companies like Google and Apple.

Of course, I’m talking about Facebook (join me here). It’s not only changed the way we consume information, but also how we interact with the world.

In Becoming Facebook: The 10 Challenges that Defined the Company That’s Disrupting the World, Mike Hoefflinger takes us from the start of 2009 and its 150 million users to its explosive growth over the next several years.

Mike Hoefflinger is a 25-year veteran of Silicon Valley. After working directly for Andy Grove at Intel and as general manager of the Intel Inside program, Mike moved to Facebook to serve as Head of Global Business Marketing. During his nearly seven years there, the teams he built helped dramatically grow Facebook’s advertising business. He is now an executive-in-residence at XSeed Capital.

I recently spoke with him about all things Facebook.

 

FACT: Facebook generates more traffic to YouTube than any other source including Google.

 

Behind Facebook’s Unprecedented Rise

What are some of the factors behind Facebook’s unprecedented rise to its worldwide phenomenon status?

Any story of Facebook’s rise starts with Mark Zuckerberg. While it would be difficult to acquire his vision and intuition, we can learn from how he goes about moving Facebook forward. With Facebook’s mission to make the world more open and connected in place since its earliest days, Zuckerberg has always preferred doing to talking. Whether it is building and launching thefacebook.com, staying calm during stormy product launches or competitive episodes, making big decisions to grow the business, self-disrupting the company via large acquisitions to protect itself, or betting on futures others dismiss or don’t see (such as VR/AR and connecting the next billion Internet users), dogma and fear never swamp the doing.

 

Fact: Facebook tops 1.25 billion users per day.

 

Would you share some statistics on Facebook’s current reach? How often we access it? How it compares to other media?

It’s difficult to over-state how large Facebook has become. Not only does it serve more than 1.94 billion people a month—about two-thirds of all Internet users in the world—it serves two-thirds of those every day, on average once every waking hour. No wonder it is the single most popular mobile app ever. And while that would be impressive, the company is also home to three of the next five most popular global communications tools: WhatsApp at more than 1.2 billion users a month, Messenger at more than 1.2 billion, and Instagram with more than 700 million. With consumers on the way to making mobile the most important medium ever—it is forecast to eclipse the amount of time we spend per person on television in 2020—Facebook is its pre-eminent force.

 

CEOs Who Transform How We Live

What can we learn from great CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg?

Zuckerberg has become a member of a very small group of CEOs in the last five decades who run consumer technology companies that invent the future for us, create the things we cannot live without, and touch hundreds of millions, and sometimes billions, of lives: Intel’s Andy Grove, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, Alphabet’s Larry Page and Tesla’s Elon Musk. After observing them the last 25 years in Silicon Valley, I’ve detected three things these product-centric founding CEOs have in common:

(1) They pursue an achievable-unachievable mission—something so big it cannot be completed, but one that offers moments of success along the path to bring confidence and momentum to employees, customers and observers.

(2) They are able to see—and willing to pursue—things that are very clever, but appear foolish in most minds initially. This way they avoid the food-fight of ideas everyone else thinks are clever, a road to nowhere of ideas that not only appear foolish but actually are. They usually know something—especially about technology and customers—that no-one else does.

(3) They are running 21st Century Medici Academies that attract the best talent. 500 years before Silicon Valley, the Medici family of Renaissance Florence built facilities, bestowed patronage and hosted discussion forums for the brightest minds of the period, including Michelangelo, DaVinci and Botticelli. The vision, scale and success of these modern-day CEOs make their teams highly attractive for today’s builders with the biggest dreams.

 

The Speed Factor

Are You Broadcasting Happiness?

Disrupt Negative Thinking and Revamp Your Broadcast

 

Do you know someone who is always negative?

Is it possible to inspire happiness in others?

 

Michelle Gielan, former national CBS News anchor turned positive psychology researcher, is the best-selling author of Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change. She is the Founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research.

I recently had the opportunity to ask speak with her about her fascinating research into happiness, positivity, and our impact on others.

 

How positive you are on social media depends on your news feed so choose your friends wisely.

 

Create Positive Change

You’ve been a successful broadcaster at CBS News. But your work now is about a different type of broadcasting. You say we broadcast happiness and that creates positive change in those around us. How did this realization come to you?

People talk about how negative the news can be—and they are right. As the anchor of two national news programs at CBS, I saw how not only were the stories largely negative but also told in a disempowering way. We rarely talked about potential solutions.

At the height of the recession, we started broadcasting solutions for every problem we featured. We called it Happy Week. Drawing on positive psychology, the series centered on actions taken to foster happiness (and quite frankly peace of mind!) during some of our biggest financial challenges.

We received the greatest viewer response of the year, but more importantly, this was a powerful example of research in action. I wanted to know more about creating empowerment in others—so I quit to study positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Now as a positive psychology researcher, I see the toxic effects of a constant stream of negative news on the brain. In a study I conducted with researcher Shawn Achor and Arianna Huffington, we found that watching just three minutes of negative news in the morning can lead to a 27% increased chance of you having a bad day as reported 6-8 hours later. The negative mindset we adopt first thing sticks with us all day.

 

Study: Watching 3 minutes of negative news in the morning increases the likelihood of a bad day.

 

But CBS News also showed me a better way—which is something I now share at talks at companies and organizations—specifically how to talk about the negative in a way that leaves people feeling empowered and ready to act. In our follow-up study published in Harvard Business Review, we found that by pairing a discussion of problems with solutions, you can fuel creative problem solving in someone else by 20%. For managers, this means you can talk about the negative without decimating your team.

Looking at all this research, I had an epiphany: we are all broadcasters. What’s your broadcast? As you move throughout your day talking to your colleagues, family and friends, where do you focus their attention? Some facts and stories fuel success; others don’t. In my book Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change, I share the science and tools to disrupt negative thinking and revamp our broadcast to fuel success at work and beyond.

Using the science, our clients have been able to increase sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars. Personally, I’m so happy I now get to broadcast these kinds of stories about individuals and organizations creating positive change. This is so much more inspiring.

 

Study: Optimists at work are 5x less likely to burn out than the pessimist.

 

The Work Optimist, you point out, is five times less likely to burn out and three times more engaged than the pessimist. Is it possible to move up the continuum and be more positive? What techniques work to do this?

Michelle GielanYes! The most inspiring thing about the results of our research is that many of the elements of our mindset that predict success, like Work Optimism, are malleable. Work optimism is the belief that good things can happen, especially in the face of challenges, and that our behavior matters. We created a validated assessment that tests people on their levels of Work Optimism and two other predictors of long-term success at work.

If you find you’re scoring lower than you wish on Work Optimism, you can adopt a simple 30 second habit: Use the Power Lead. Make sure your lead sentence in conversations or meetings at work is positive. If you start conversations with how tired, sick, or stressed you feel, your body follows, as does the rest of the conversation.

We are taught to mimic the social patterns of others, so if someone starts a sales call with, “I’ve been swamped lately,” then both individuals start to feel more stressed and overwhelmed, which can oftentimes kill the sale. In our fast-paced world, you might have time to relay only one piece of social information at work. If you make it negative, then you get stuck in that pattern. Power leads can be simple, such as answering “How are you?” with some good news, such as, “Doing great! Had an awesome weekend with the family. My daughter scored a goal at lacrosse!”

 

“Cultivate happiness and you’re cultivating success at the same time.” –Michelle Gielan

 

What are a few ways to become a better broadcaster, able to motivate and communicate with power and results?

7 Leadership Lessons from the Political Arguing

Finding the Positive or Are You Sick of It, too?

I’m not sure about you, but it’s hard for me to take much more of the political fights happening throughout my social media world. It’s obvious that we are in unchartered territory here in the United States because I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

 

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Dr. Seuss

 

Even a simple comment by one person can erupt into a full-blown fight. Naturally, logic is often missing from these so-called conversations.

I’ve seen many people un-friending and un-following people who don’t wholeheartedly agree with their “right” position.

On the other hand, I’ve seen true leaders emerging in the midst of it all. What do leaders do when an unexpected blast of political winds threatens to overwhelm?

 

“Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.” –Stephen Covey

 

Leaders Emerge

I’ve seen leaders ask more questions to understand and clarify. Instead of proving someone wrong and the rightness of a position, I watched someone modify language and communication. Or, try this: Start with the positive before you believe the worst about someone. And especially gratifying was when two people agreed to actually talk. Yes, talk—you know, when you are actually sitting down, face-to-face and having a real conversation instead of a social media onslaught. What an idea! Finally, I was particularly pleased when someone took my counsel. My advice was to see if you could argue the other side passionately and factually. That required research and time, but I was told it was an incredibly enlightening process. He didn’t change his mind, but he did reach a common understanding with his friend.

 

“Leaders start with the positive, always believing the best first.” -Skip Prichard

 

I’m taking these simple lessons beyond these arguments to use in my everyday life:

  1. Ask more questions
  2. Clarify positions
  3. Assume positive intent
  4. Reduce emotions by hearing the stories behind the raw emotion
  5. Modify language from extreme positioning
  6. Increase face-to-face conversations
  7. Learn to articulate the other side with passion and facts

 

I can’t say that I’m not frustrated with it all. I still cringe when I see someone post a question as bait ready to hook someone into an argument. At least now I’m hoping for a more positive resolution.

“Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners.” -Laurence Sterne

 

The constant negative political talk had me pen a little poem about it all.

Here it is:

3 Powerful Lessons from 5 Years of Blogging

It was five years ago when I launched this blog, Leadership Insights.

At the time, I had several people encouraging me to do it, but many more were against it.

 


“Success is the pull against the current of mediocrity.” -Skip Prichard

 

Overcome Negative Voices

The list of negative sentiments kept coming at me:

  • The blogging craze is over.
  • It’s too hard to start now.
  • Starting is easy, getting anyone to read a blog is difficult.
  • Do you have the time?
  • Are you going to burn out?
  • Why do you want to share all of this for free?
  • You want to do this without a business model?
  • The technical side of it is more challenging than you know.
  • How long can you keep this up?
  • What’s the best way to promote a new blog?
  • You just joined Twitter a month ago. Learn that before doing something bigger.

I’ve now been blogging for five years. After millions of hits, you’d think the naysayers would stop. Maybe they’ve been silenced a bit, but every now and then I hear something that reminds me that success is the pull against the current of mediocrity. Somehow my brain uses negativity and difficulty as fuel to propel me higher. Truth be told, it’s not others who may cause me to pause. It’s my own thoughts. I think negative thoughts from inside us are the worst offenders because it’s much harder to tune out the voice within.

 


“Believing in negative thoughts is the single greatest obstruction to success.” -Charles Glassman

 

Stay the Course

And, yes, I’ve often asked myself whether I should continue, whether it matters, and whether I will keep blogging. I’ve never promised that I wouldn’t quit, but instead I just plod along, writing the next post, interviewing another author, sharing a story that uplifts or a quote that inspires. Discipline wears down any obstacle in the way water seeks its own level. Often the biggest successes come after powering through the most challenging times.

 


“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” -Vince Lombardi

 

There are many things that I’ve learned in my five years of blogging:

  • How to focus on the reader
  • How to write faster
  • How to ignore critics
  • How to write better headlines
  • How to utilize a good outline
  • How to write more succinctly

Understand that People Are Most Important