Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations | Hidden Brain We've all experienced miscommunications. Their consequences can range from hilarious... to disastrous. The actor Alan Alda — yes, that Alan Alda — wants to help us avoid them.
NPR logo

Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/577433687/577789363" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations

Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/577433687/577789363" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

We've all experienced miscommunications. They can range from hilarious to disastrous. The actor Alan Alda - yes, that Alan Alda from "M*A*S*H" and "The West Wing" and "30 Rock" - wants to help us all communicate better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN ALDA: And I've noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Now, fighting miscommunication might seem like an ironic choice for an actor whose comedy career has been built on all the funny consequences of people misunderstanding one another. But more recently, Alan has shifted his focus toward helping scientists and the rest of us say what we mean, mean what we say and listen better to one another. I taped a conversation with Alan at a live event in Washington, D.C., about his new book "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?"

Alan Alda, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

ALDA: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

VEDANTAM: I want to start by asking you about an episode in your life some years ago. You were sitting in a dentist's chair, and the dentist had a very sharp instrument a couple of inches from your mouth. What happened next?

ALDA: He stuck it in and carved my gums. But before he did that, he felt it was important to check off on his list something that he had to say to me before he did this operation. The procedure was one he had invented. And he was kind of proud of it because he was taking out a front tooth that was kind of dead. And that would leave a socket. So he had invented this method where he would draw down some of the gum over the socket to give a blood supply while it healed, which was a nice idea - except he felt he had to explain to me what he was going to do. And he wasn't real clear about it. And he had the scalpel really inches from my face.

And he said now, there will be some tethering. And I said there'll be what? He said tethering. I said, tethering? - tethering, tethering. He started barking at me. And I was over the age of 50. And I should've had the nerve to say put that knife down and tell me what you're going to do to me. And I didn't do that. I was sort of - I think I was in awe of his surgical gown. And he seemed to know what he was doing. And so I let him go ahead and do it without knowing what he was talking about. By the way, to this day, I don't know what tethering meant in that situation.

But he did the procedure. And I was making a movie a couple of weeks later, and I had a smile in the scene. So I gave this big, hearty smile. And after the shot was over, the director of photography said, I thought you were going to smile. I said, I did. I smiled. And he said, no, you were sneering.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: I said, no, I wasn't. I was - he said go look in the mirror. And I looked in the mirror, and I smiled. And I was sneering. So he had done something. He'd cut off that little tissue between your upper lip and your gum. And my lip just sort of hung there. But the only good thing about that was that I was able to play a whole range of villains really well.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: But I - you know, what's interesting is it was another example, in that situation, of not great communicating because I called him and told him that - what had happened and that I was disappointed. And I - and he started getting very defensive - never said I'm sorry that you felt mutilated.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Right.

ALDA: And in fact, he said, I told you there were two steps to the procedure. I don't really remember if I went back for another step. I was afraid to let him in again. But then he sent me a letter telling me why he wasn't responsible for anything. And he was - it was a defensive letter that set him up for his defense in case I sued him.

VEDANTAM: Yeah.

ALDA: And I had no intention of suing him. I just wanted him to know that one of his customers wasn't happy.

VEDANTAM: You know, I was driving over in an Uber on my way here, Alan, and I must have found the most aggressive Uber driver in Washington.

ALDA: What did he do?

VEDANTAM: Driving in Washington, D.C., at about 5:45 in the evening is one of the worst experiences on the planet. But this Uber driver was really aggressive and cutting people off and, you know, driving really recklessly. And I kept thinking, what would Alan Alda tell me? What should I say? And I felt it was not my place to be telling her how to drive. At the same time, I felt like my life was in danger, and I felt I was wrong in keeping quiet. And then we were on 15th Street about a block away, and she made this turn at somewhat high speed, and she missed a bicycle by maybe a couple of inches. And it made me think about your story about the tethering, which is we keep silent in all kinds of situations.

ALDA: Yes, that's true. And it really is a good idea to get alert to what you're feeling and give voice to it. And I think if you give voice to it with what the other person is hearing in mind, it doesn't have to be aggressive. You don't have to say don't drive badly like that. You could, you know, put it in your terms. It's - you're making me crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: In 1993, you began hosting this show for PBS where you interviewed various scientists. "Scientific American Frontiers" it was called. And in one of your earliest stories - this might even have been your first story - you interviewed a scientist who was building a solar-powered racing car. And right out of the box, you made three communication blunders.

ALDA: I know. It was my first interview. And I had talked my way into the show. They said, we want you to host this show. And I thought, oh, they just want me to read a narration. But I want to talk to the scientists on camera, so I can learn about their work. And I had done a little interviewing, taking over as a guest host once in a while. But I hadn't interviewed scientists before. So they took a real chance on me when they said they'd do it. And there was this scientist with his solar panel, and I just hesitated for a moment before I went in. And the producer said go ahead. Go in there. This is what you want, right? So I went in. And I - you're right - I made three blunders right off the bat. First of all, I told him something that wasn't true about his own work.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: I said this is amazing how you've built this solar panel using entirely parts off the shelf. I don't know what made me think that it was done that way. And he - I saw this pained look on his face. And he said it wasn't off the shelf. Some of these were made with great care. So I felt a little abashed at that, and I wanted to make up for it. So I wanted to show how familiar and tenderly I felt toward his work. And I rested my hand on his solar panel. He said don't touch that. You could break it.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: And then I realized I was making the third blunder about halfway through. I wasn't asking him questions based on what he had just said to me. I was asking him questions based on what I had intended earlier to ask him. So I was almost in danger of getting into that situation where the interviewer says how's everything going? And you say, my grandmother just died, and the interviewer says great, now tell me about your last movie.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: You know, you've got to respond to where the person really is. And they were good blunders to make because I could see right away that I needed to relate better to the people I was going to be talking with.

VEDANTAM: So it turns out, Alan, you haven't just made blunders talking to scientists. You have made blunders talking to your own relatives.

ALDA: I'm making a blunder right now talking to you.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: You tell the story in your book about being on a vacation with your 6-year-old grandson in the Virgin Islands. And he spotted this very unusual-looking tree, and he asked you how it came to be that way.

ALDA: That's right because we had never seen these trees and bushes and plants that we were seeing on this walk because the Virgin Islands is such a paradise, and it has so many different kinds of vegetation. So we saw this tree that had a long, skinny trunk with spikes all up and down it. It looked like a dragon's back. And Tejo (ph) said, Grandpa, look at that tree. How did it get like that? And I thought, oh, this is great. And he's asking me about evolution. We could have a talk about evolution. He was only 6 years old, but he's asking me this question that I can - we can really have this great conversation. So we sat on the ground, and we talked about evolution for 45 minutes. It was glorious - natural selection, the whole thing. And the next day, he was swimming with his cousin, and he asked her a question. And she said, well, that sounds like a science question. Why don't you ask Grandpa? He said, I'm not making that mistake again.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: I'm a font of blunders.

VEDANTAM: I'm talking with Alan Alda about the high costs of miscommunication and what we can do to become better communicators. When we come back, we're going to look at some scenes from Alan's acting career that illustrate important ideas related to communication. Stay with us.

(APPLAUSE, SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: I want to play you some clips from your acting career that I think reveal some interesting questions and themes related to communication. This first one comes from "M*A*S*H," where you played a character named Hawkeye Pierce. And I want to play the clip and then ask you a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

MCLEAN STEVENSON: (As Lt. Col. Henry Blake) And carefully cut the wires leading to the clockwork fuse at the head.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIRE CUTTING)

STEVENSON: (As Lt. Col. Henry Blake) But first, remove the fuse.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: You've spent much of your career, Alan, working in scenes which involve comedic timing. And I want to talk a little bit about the idea of timing in communication. Have the skills that you learned as an actor, your timing skills, helped you in your actual life? Has it helped you in your relationships, in terms of what you say, knowing what the right time is to bring something up?

ALDA: Everything I learned as an actor, it turns out has been important to me in this phase of my life when I'm trying to help people communicate better and when I'm trying to learn myself how to communicate better. Timing, for me, goes like this - there are many people who think timing is waiting before you get to the punchline. And some people actually think that you're supposed to count to three silently before you do the punchline or or some other number.

For me, timing has always meant a thought process that you're going through. And at the end of that thought, that's when the punchline comes out. Either you're trying to figure something out. Or something - there's some internal conflict, and something arises from the unconscious. And that's when you say what it is. It's a - it's not a simple thing. It's not - timing is not waiting. Timing is actually going through something. And what you go through is different from time to time.

But that's kind of technical. And that's a - it's part - it's based on the idea that - for me anyway, the best kind of acting is going through an experience that's very similar to real life. And the time it takes to say something is dependent upon the circumstance you're in and your response to it.

VEDANTAM: So when you say you go through this thought process, as you're telling a joke for example, are you trying to think through how the audience is hearing the joke? What's the thought process?

ALDA: If you're talking directly to an audience, then you're really aware of what they're going through moment by moment, and you're aware of their thought process to a great extent. If you're acting with another actor, the thought process is the interaction between you and the other actor. You don't spray your dialogue at the other person. It's really important this idea that I don't say my next line in the play because it's written in the script, and I've memorized it. I say it because you do something - you, the other actor, do something, or you say something that makes me say this next line and makes me say it in a certain way.

VEDANTAM: You know, you've spent some time as a science journalist, Alan. And I actually have spent some time, very briefly, as an actor before I realized that this was not cut out for me at all.

ALDA: No kidding.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, but one of the things...

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Comedic timing, ladies and gentlemen.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: But one of the things I was always surprised by is when directors said, you really have to listen to what the other person is saying. And it always struck me as odd because this is a script. Everyone's saying their lines. You know what you're going to say. Why do you...

ALDA: I think this explains your exit from that career.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: But that's the heart of it. That's really the heart of my book. The idea that you must listen to the other actor is so fundamental to me that that's in a way the essence of it. You can't have spontaneity. It's not going to look like life happening between us if I'm not listening to you and responding to you.

VEDANTAM: This next clip I want to play for you, Alan, actually I think speaks to what you were just talking about because it talks a little bit about how people listen to one another. And this comes from "30 Rock." You're speaking in this scene with Alec Baldwin, and I'll let the clip do the talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Do you remember a woman named Colleen Donaghy?

ALDA: (As Professor Milton Greene) Sure, that takes me back a few years.

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) 1958?

ALDA: (As Professor Milton Greene) Yeah, right. She rented me a room when I was a graduate student. One month, I couldn't pay, so she said maybe there was something else I could give her. So I gave her my radio. And then a couple of weeks later, we got drunk and had sex.

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Oh, OK. I'm Jack Donaghy, Colleen's son. I was born around 9 months after that.

ALDA: (As Professor Milton Greene) Oh, my God. Wait a minute. Is this contest some "Mamma Mia" thing?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Milton, I'm your son.

ALDA: (As Professor Milton Greene) Of course, you are. I should have known the minute I saw you. I have a son - a beautiful son.

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) And have a dad.

ALDA: (As Professor Milton Greene) Fate has brought us together, Jack, to open a whole new chapter in my life.

BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) Yeah, isn't it amazing?

ALDA: (As Professor Milton Greene) You don't know the half of it. I need a kidney.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: So I love that scene. But I also love it not just because it's funny because I think it illustrates an idea that researchers have talked about for a while - this idea called switch tracking, which is that when you're having a conversation with people sometimes both people can think they're having a conversation, but they're actually having two different conversations.

ALDA: Yeah, and I agree. That's what's happening in this scene. Alec Baldwin's character thinks he's found his father, and that it means something to both of them as it does to him. And he just realized his father just wants a kidney. So he's glad to find his son. But that - you're right. That happens in less comedic ways. And sometimes in tragic ways, in real life where we think we're on the same track, and we're really not. If you're really on two different tracks, you'll actually see in the other person's face that things aren't really jiving here. There are points where contact is missing, and they'll start to look confused or upset at certain points because, you know, you'll be answering the wrong questions.

VEDANTAM: Right, or not reading the subtext of the questions, or the question is not actually what it seems to be - it's actually something else.

ALDA: Right, which is probably the most common way you're on two different tracks - you're not noticing the subtext.

VEDANTAM: Right. I want to play you a third clip. This one comes from...

ALDA: "Kingdom Coming," I love watching this one.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: This one comes from "The West Wing," and the setup here is that two presidential candidates are about to walk on stage for a debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WEST WING")

JIMMY SMITS: (As Matt Santos) Next time you decide to smear me, maybe you'll have the guts to do it yourself.

ALDA: (As Arnold Vinick) I had nothing to do with that ad. You blew up the debates. It's clear what kind of a campaign you want.

SMITS: (As Matt Santos) Oh, I forgot how eager you were for debates.

ALDA: (As Arnold Vinick) Next time you send left-wing lobbyists to my office, don't forget the gift card.

SMITS: (As Matt Santos) You want an ugly campaign. You're going to get one.

ALDA: (As Arnold Vinick) I didn't start this.

SMITS: (As Matt Santos) No, your hatchet man did it for you.

ALDA: (As Arnold Vinick) You're hitting me on partial-birth tonight, aren't you?

SMITS: (As Matt Santos) Here we are - presidential campaign, grand national debate, pounding each other on one of the few things we basically agree on.

VEDANTAM: I want to ask you about the present political moment, Alan - not so much about what's happening specifically with, you know, people in Washington or what's happening in the news - but really about the moment that we're living in where it feels like there is so much anger and vitriol on both sides of the aisle. And I'm wondering whether some of it actually has to do with what's happening here, which is, you know, a lot of Americans might actually not have significant differences of opinion.

I mean, we might disagree with things. You might think 5 percent of the budget needs to be for education, and I think it's 8 percent of the budget. But we're not actually chasms apart in terms of our views. But the partisan rancor that we have makes us feel as if we actually are, you know, poles apart. And I'm wondering is this a communication question. Is part of the anger that we feel to one another in the country driven by a kind of miscommunication in some ways, where we're not reading each other correctly, and we're seeing the worst in each other?

ALDA: I think you're probably right. And what interests me about your choosing this clip and playing it right after the previous clip is this is almost a mirror image of the other clip where they're having two different conversations. They mean two different things by the same conversation. And these two people have the opposite problem. They basically are in agreement and have to fight nevertheless and are preparing to fight. They're ready to go out and tear each other to the pieces. And partly, I think, because they belong to two different tribes. And those tribes have been feuding for a long time, and there isn't much incentive - although there used to be - or it seems there was more incentive to find out the common ground, which could solve a lot of these problems.

It's so interesting. I talk about in the book some extreme examples of people at each other's throats, like the trench warfare in World War I when on Christmas Eve they realized they had common ground when they heard each other singing Christmas carols across no man's land. And the next morning on Christmas day, they got up out of their trenches and met in no man's land - shook hands. Some of them played soccer. They got to know one another. And then the officers came and said there's supposed to be a war happening here. And they went back in the trenches and tried to kill each other again. But for that moment, they had the common ground.

VEDANTAM: You know, I'm thinking about the days right after the 9/11 attacks in the United States where it felt for a week or two that there was an enormous sense of unity. And again, it was sort of - it sort of - I guess it's not quite the same thing. But it's the idea that there's something - the frame shifts sometimes. And you stop seeing yourself as Republicans and Democrats, but you start seeing yourself as part of a larger group.

ALDA: That's the way it's supposed to be. They're supposed to be Republicans and Democrats in order to function well as part of the larger group which is called the United States of America. And that's sometimes secondary to hating your party. It's an unfortunate thing because in the long run it's very costly.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, yeah. I'm talking with Alan Alda before a live audience in Washington D.C. When we come back, I'm going to ask Alan about some techniques that actors learn that can help us all become better communicators. Stay with us.

(APPLAUSE)

VEDANTAM: I want to talk about another situation involving a doctor. This one involved a doctor, I believe, in Chile where you needed medical attention. And this doctor treated you very differently than the dentist treated you in the other situation.

ALDA: That's true. It was the best example of communication I had ever heard. I had - my problem was that I had an intestine that had twisted - got caught in something and had choked off the blood supply. And about a yard of my intestine was dying. And in the middle of the night, I was taken to a hospital. And he recognized almost immediately what was wrong with me. And he didn't use fancy language. He explained to me in the simplest, most - the plainest language. Here's what's happened, he said. Some of your intestine has gone bad, and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together. You can't get simpler than that.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: And that was absolutely accurate. There wasn't anything about that, as clear as it was, that wasn't true. And by the way, he wasn't just speaking clearly. I remember so vividly the - he's leaning down, looking into my eyes, watching my face to see if I understood him. That was the essence of good communication. He was watching me to see if I was getting it. Did I understand him? Or did I have that funny look on my face? And, yeah, the answer to your original notion is things I've learned as an actor have made me understand the importance of how that doctor, Nelson Zepeda, in Chile, in the middle of the night 13 or 14 years ago, how he made a real effort to communicate with me. And it made all the difference for me.

VEDANTAM: I understand the technical term for this procedure is an end-to-end anastomosis if I'm saying that correctly. And I can just imagine if the doctor had said, I'm going to perform an end-to-end anastomosis, Mr. Alda, how that would have made you feel.

ALDA: Well, I would have felt the way I did with the dentist.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: I want to ask you about another thing you mention in the book. You cite Don Hewitt, who was the creator of the television show "60 Minutes." And you say that Don had a simple four-word question he would ask when people pitched stories for the show that in some ways was the essence of the success of the show.

ALDA: Yes, he loved that story. And I know he loved it because I knew Don for about 30 years, and he told me that story three times a year.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: And the story was that when somebody would come into his office - a producer - and say, I've got a great idea for a segment on the show, they'd start to tell about some infraction of the banking regulations or something like that. And he'd hold up his hand and say wait a minute - four words. Tell me a story. And he felt that that was what made the show so successful all those years. It was number one for a couple of decades at least. And I think he was right about it being due to - part of the success of the show. And I think it's because we all tell stories to one another. We listen better to a story. We get involved when we hear a story. And his stories would always have a middle part where the fortunes shifted. And you thought to yourself, this isn't what I thought this was going to be about. This is a deeper question, or this - look at the turn this took. Now this is affecting me in a different way. The importance of the middle, I think, is so huge.

VEDANTAM: You know, I was interviewing a researcher at Columbia University. Her name is Xiaodong Lin, and she's done a lot of work looking at trying to get children interested in science. And she finds something really fascinating that speaks to exactly what you just talked about, which is the traditional way we have of teaching science is to tell people, you know, there was this great physicist, Albert Einstein. And he was the greatest genius the world has ever known, and he came up with theories that, even today, many people struggle to understand. So that's the classic way we tell science stories.

And what she found was that instead of doing that, if you tell a story which says something along the lines of, you know, there was a time when Einstein was working on a problem, and he got so stuck that he couldn't figure out the math. And he needed help to figure out the math, and he reached out to somebody else, saying, I can't figure out the math to this. Can you please help me? When you tell stories that involve struggle and obstacles and failures about scientists, not only does this hold people's attention, but kids are now able to say, I could see myself being a scientist because I need help with math. I turn to somebody else to get help for math. And this idea that the obstacle, in some ways, is what makes the story the story is, I think, what you mean by the middle.

ALDA: It is. And underneath all of that is trying to be aware of what the listener is going through while you tell them about this because you might have the best message in the world - and a lot of people think good communication is devising a really good message that's logical, clear - you know, clear to you anyway. The question is how clear is it and how interesting is it to the person you're trying to tell it to - or is it the layer of the public you're trying to tell it to? If you can imagine what they're going through while they hear your story, then you're relating to them in the same way that I found I related to the other actor when I was on the stage.

VEDANTAM: One of the really interesting things you did was you have brought in groups of engineering students and other technical people, and you have taught them improv. You've taught them - you've put them through three hours of improv games. Why in the world would you do that?

ALDA: Because when I left the science show, I realized that the reason that the show worked was because we had a real connection between us. It wasn't an ordinary interview. I never went in with a set of questions - not after the beginning. I went in just being curious and really good and ignorant. It's good to be ignorant as long as you're curious - not so good if you're not curious. So I would be willing to reveal my ignorance to them, so they knew where I was in my understanding of their work. And then if I didn't understand what they were saying, I'd grab them by the lapels and shake them. Tell me again. What do you - so they forgot about the camera. They forgot about the lectures they had given on this. They were just trying to make me understand it. And I realized that what I was doing was relating to them, and they were relating to me in the same way two actors do when they let each other in to their field of consciousness.

So I thought the best way to train people to do that is through improvisation training. And I tried it out with a group of engineers. And after three hours, they were so much better talking about their work. I thought, I think we've got something here. We can make this work as the basis of training. And soon after that, we started what's now known as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. And we've taught - in the past eight years, we've taught almost 10,000 scientists and doctors to communicate better, starting with classes in improvisation, and then moving on to working out the content of what they're going to say. The thing is if you really relate to the other person, that has an effect on the content of what you're going to say to them. You're not going to use certain words. You're not going to use certain concepts. You're going to make sure they're with you along the way.

VEDANTAM: You have a wonderful story in your book about a moment you were trying to catch a cab. And one of the things that I didn't know about you is apparently in your 20s, among the many, many things you have done in your life, you were apparently a cab driver...

ALDA: Right.

VEDANTAM: ...For a brief period of your life. And in the story, you were trying to catch a cab. And the driver of the taxi basically asks you where you want to go before he lets you into the cab.

ALDA: Right because in New York at around 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon, the cabs are heading home. Their shift is over, and they don't want to take you unless you're going somewhere near where their garage is. So I did drive a cab. And I know that the law is if somebody wants to get in the cab, you have to let them in whether you want to take them or not. So I don't like these conversations about where are you going because I know they're not supposed to ask. They're supposed to take you. So a cab - now I had been doing all this work when this cab pulled over. And what this - what the improvising work does is it actually builds up your empathy. You get very good at being able to figure out what the other person is going through emotionally.

So now, this cab driver pulls over. He says, where are you going? And I start to get crazy mad. Where am I going? You've got to take me no matter where I'm going. But instead of that, I think, wait a minute. It's the day - it's the time of day when he's switching shifts. He's got to give the cab to somebody else. I understand why he's saying it. And it helped me accept it. So I told him where I was going - gave him the address. He said get in. So I thought, OK. So that felt pretty good. Then he says what's the cross street? And I started to get crazy angry again. He's supposed to know the cross street. But now I'm all empathized up, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: So I said to him wait a minute. I'm looking it up on my iPhone. I'm helping him out. He said, you know, you're a nice person. People get in this cab. They don't care about me at all. I'm really impressed with this. I said, well, thanks. He said, I've been trying to go to the bathroom for the last half hour. I said, well, then just drop me off. Don't - take me to the corner. Don't go all the way around the block. He said, no, I'm taking you right where you're going. You're a nice person. The guy - he's giving up his kidneys for me.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: So the funny thing was the exercises that we do in improv give you a little more empathy. And here was an example that I was using it in real life, and it was helping in the communication I had with this guy. I got where I wanted to go. I felt so much better about it. And I've noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: You came up with a very interesting exercise at one point where you were trying to increase and train your own ability to empathize with others. And you came up with a system to actually sit down with friends or colleagues. What did you do?

ALDA: Well, I realized I couldn't constantly be going to improv exercises, and I noticed that my empathy would sort of wane after a while, you know? This is - we live stressful lives. And one scientist told me that she felt that stress - you know, the stress hormones in your body when they build up, they kind of damp your empathy to some extent. So I had to find a way to build it up again because I'm beginning to really like being more empathic. So I thought it has to do with relating to other people. So suppose I go through the day and people I run into - like a cashier at a diner or people that I'm friendly with - and if I spend more than a few seconds with them, while we're talking, I try to figure out what they're feeling or what they're going through - what's their perspective? Where do they stand inside their head? And I would find I'd get a little more opened up to them. And that's what happened. By the time I talked to that cab driver, I'd been practicing this so much that I actually wasn't angry with him anymore.

And I noticed that it seems to happen even if I don't name the emotion. I thought it would be important to name the emotion. And I guess that does because you can't always name the emotion. You don't really know for sure, but maybe making the effort to name it puts you in touch with them better. But I also notice if I'm just noticing the color of their eyes and taking that in - you have very nice brown eyes.

VEDANTAM: Thank you.

ALDA: I didn't notice that till now. And you know, it took me about a half an hour before I knew you had a beard...

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: ...Which is proof to me that we all can improve on letting each other in because you can talk to someone - I know, in my experience, I'll be talking to somebody for 10 minutes, and I'll say, are you really looking at this person? And I realized there's a blob where the face ought to be. And that doesn't help connect with the other person because I think when I really see you, I think something changes on my face. I think I get a little more focused on you and a little more related. And then I see something change on your face. I think it's a dynamic interaction where you're changed by how I'm changed. And it goes on and on like that. And we have a much better chance of getting together on what we're talking about. And by our connecting, the people watching us have a greater incentive, a greater impulse to pay attention to us because when two people are relating, it's hard not to look at them.

VEDANTAM: Alan Alda's book is called "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?: My Adventures In The Art And Science Of Relating And Communicating." Our conversation today was taped before a live audience at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C.

Alan Alda, thanks for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

ALDA: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Maggie Penman and Tara Boyle - themselves, excellent communicators. Our staff includes Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Jenny Schmidt and Renee Klahr. Our unsung heroes this week are Shirley Serotsky, Emily Jillson and Elliott Lanes of the JCC. Shirley, Elliott and Emily helped us tape our conversation with Alan Alda. At one point while we were playing video clips from Alan's acting career, we had some technical difficulties with a projector. It wouldn't turn off after playing the clips, so Shirley held a cardboard UPS mailer in front of that project for the next 60 minutes to ensure the audience wasn't distracted by a square box of light over the stage. If that isn't the selfless act of an unsung hero, I don't know what is.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, follow the show on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. If you liked this show, please communicate it to a friend. Tell people about HIDDEN BRAIN and ask them to subscribe to our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

In a few weeks, just in time for Valentine's Day, HIDDEN BRAIN is going to turn its attention to another way we communicate with one another and relate to our closest partners.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRINCESS BRIDE")

PETER COOK: (As The Impressive Clergyman) Marriage - marriage is what brings us together today.

VEDANTAM: That's right - marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAGNER'S "BRIDAL CHORUS")

VEDANTAM: Whether you're coupled up or not, this episode about long-term relationships will give you new insight about your love life.

ELI FINKEL: I think if we think about what we're really asking of our marriages these days in terms of the, you know, ambition of these expectations, then we realize that if we're too tired or lazy to invest in the quality of the relationship, that, of course, we're not going to be able to make the summit attempt.

VEDANTAM: Ahead of this episode, we have a request. We're going to have a question-and-answer session on npr.org with psychologist and marriage expert Eli Finkel. What questions do you have about your own relationship? Are you going through a rough patch, dissatisfied without knowing why? Maybe you just want some advice on how to communicate better. Email us your questions at hiddenbrain@npr.org. That's hiddenbrain - one word - @npr.org. Remember to put the word marriage in the subject line.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.