For actor, writer, director, and science-curious artist Alan Alda, the basis of communication is empathy—beginning with a simple connection. For decades, as the host of a popular science show, Alda has been helping to heal the ancient rift between highly technical science and ordinary curiosity. In this masterclass, he shares what he (and science) have learned about how we can better relate to one another, improving our communication skills across every relationship.
What You'll Learn
- How to communicate empathetically
- How to know what your audience is thinking about
- How to build the skill of empathetic listening
- How to exercise your empathy muscle
1. Follow The Three Rules of Three
Over years of practicing the art of communication, Alan Alda has developed three rules that help him make sure he’s getting his point(s) across. We’re sharing them with you with a caveat: Alda emphasizes that these “tips” are the end result of years of learning. He recommends that you focus, above all else, on trying to connect, as starting with a list of rules can actually have the opposite effect, drawing your attention away from the person you’re talking to.
2. Meet Your Reader’s Expectations
You might be tempted to think that writing is completely different from face-to-face communication because your reader isn’t present. How can you “read” their reactions and gauge what they understand and what they’re missing? You’re not off the hook, says Alan Alda. As the writer, it’s your job to structure your sentences so as to hook and hold the reader’s attention. Like face-to-face dialogue, this requires empathy.
3. Help Your Jargon Be Helpful
“Let’s circle back.” “Outside the box.” “At the end of the day…” Jargon gets a bad rap with good reason: often it stands between us and what we’re really trying to say. Worse yet, people sometimes use it as a smokescreen, hiding behind jargon as a power move to create the illusion of complexity or deep insider knowledge.
4. Empathy 101
Empathy. In competitive, driven American professional culture (for one), the word might not inspire the same level of respect as, say, ambition, or success. But the skill of empathetic listening, closely related to the concept of emotional intelligence, is the essential basis for all effective communication. If you can’t sense what another person is feeling or thinking, how can you connect with them? If you can’t connect, why should they care about what you have to say?
5. Make Your Work Interesting to Others with Story
Most information on its own isn’t all that interesting unless it directly affects our well-being one way or the other. If it isn’t a personal matter of life, death, or salary, what gets our attention is story.
6. A Case Study in Communicating with Empathy
The French author Gustave Flaubert was famously obsessive in his search for the “mot juste” (literally the “right word”)—the perfect syntax with which to express any given thought.Word choice is important, of course. But Alan Alda maintains that empathy and human connection are the essential basis of all effective communication.
7. Use Improvising Techniques to Help Your Communication Partner
What does improvisational comedy have to do with collaborating well at work and succeeding in any career path? Too often we only half-listen to other people’s ideas, waiting on tiptoes for an opportunity to share our own. That’s a “Yes, but—” approach to communication. “Yes, that’s very interesting what you said, but how about my far superior idea?” Worse still is the flat-out “no”. “Nope! That won’t work, and here’s seven reasons why…”
8. Build and Monitor Empathy
Empathy is a superpower for connecting and communicating with others, but it can be surprisingly fragile. A bad mood, an aching back, or an otherwise preoccupied mind can easily close us off even to the people we’re closest to, let alone to colleagues or strangers on the daily commute. Noticing this, Alan Alda wondered what exercises could help bulk up the “empathy muscle” or keep his “empathy thermometer” hot regardless of shifting circumstances. An exercise he invented became the focus of...