Q&A: Why Empathy is Important for Communication

By: Alan Alda

The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging interviewed award-winning actor Alan Alda about his new book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Alda is a six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner and is widely known for his roles as Captain Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H and Arnold Vinick in The West Wing. The book chronicles his experiences and lessons learned in discovering new ways to help people communicate and relate to one another more effectively. It also describes key techniques to build empathy and avoid jargon—especially when speaking with broad audiences.

Founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and former host of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, Alda also delves into his past work, where he interviewed many scientists and helped them effectively communicate complex ideas to broad audiences. Alda’s focus complements the Center for the Future of Aging’s mission to improve lives and strengthen societies by promoting healthy, productive, and purposeful aging. Our current health efforts include increasing the public's scientific literacy, writing editorials, and convening top experts, among other projects. As the Center sees a need for better communication in prevention and wellness, our focus is to convey ideas and information about healthier, longer lives. For this Q&A, the Center's Sophie Okolo interviewed Alda about key themes in communication, purpose, and beneficial engagement.

Sophie Okolo: Empathy is essential to good communication. From inter-familial communication to explaining medical procedures to patients, why do you think it’s difficult to learn this key lesson?

Alan Alda: This is a mystery to me. Almost all of us seem to have some capacity for empathy, and we think of ourselves as social animals, yet we have to keep re-learning the basic tools of life with others. It feels so good to be in close contact with other people, you’d think it would be self-reinforcing. Instead, we seem to need to be constantly re-introduced to the pleasures of empathy and relating.

Sophie Okolo: In Chapter 1, you had a difficult time convincing a scientist about the importance of science communication. How can we make the case to scientists who are not sympathetic to clear communication?

Alan Alda: There aren’t many scientists now who don’t see the value of greater clarity. I see a growing awareness that clear and vivid communication is essential if we’re going to close the gap between the public and science. When we started the Center for Communicating Science eight years ago, it wasn’t unusual for scientists to question the need for it. Now, we are having trouble keeping up with the demand for our services.

Sophie Okolo: I can totally relate with the chapter on jargon! During my days as a bioinformatics student, my colleagues and I often used formality and jargon when speaking about our work. Should universities tackle this issue by teaching science students how to communicate with the public?

“My hope has always been that one day all science education would include communication training.”
— Alan Alda

Alan Alda: Yes! My hope has always been that one day all science education would include communication training. We should turn out holders of graduate degrees who are not only accomplished scientists but good communicators as well. They’ll need that skill to get funding for their work, to collaborate with other scientists across disciplines, and to help people like me enjoy the wonders of nature in a way only science can make possible.

But we don’t only train students. We’ve had great success working with senior scientists who are leaders in their field. They’re out there right now explaining science, and every time they have a chance to communicate—to the public or Congress—it should be as compelling as possible.

Sophie Okolo: Will better communication from scientists encourage the public to take a greater interest in scientific discoveries that may affect citizens’ health?

Alan Alda: It’s bound to. And one of the benefits I hope for is not just the communication of the latest advance in medicine, but also a side dish of teaching how science works. For instance, when we read that coffee is bad for you and then a year later that it has some good qualities, and then a year later that it has some bad qualities, too, it’s easy for people to throw up their hands and stop listening. We need to learn that one study doesn’t leave a question resolved for all time. Almost every study leads to more questions. It’s not that scientists can’t make up their minds about coffee, it’s that they keep thinking of new questions to ask. Once we get used to that, it’s kind of exciting to see where these questions lead.

Sophie Okolo: How can scientists resonate with audiences when they haven't had the kind of human moment that David Mueller describes in Chapter 6?

Alan Alda: We see over and over when we ask scientists to tell us a story about their work, at first they don’t think they have one. But everyone has a story. Interestingly, it’s the failures, the blind alleys along the way, even accidentally stumbling across something you didn’t expect, that capture our attention and make us root for the hero.

“Interestingly, it’s the failures, the blind alleys along the way, even accidentally stumbling across something you didn’t expect, that capture our attention and make us root for the hero.”
— Alan Alda

Sophie Okolo: In your book, you write about the significance of improv. How can this help improve communications between people?

Alan Alda: The improvisation exercises we teach are all designed to bring you into better contact with the other person. It’s not comedy improv. It’s a series of experiences that strengthen your ability to relate.

Sophie Okolo: As powerful as improv can be, can people successfully use it in conversation? And is reading minds always possible?

Alan Alda: It’s remarkable how our improv training can get you so used to picking up clues about how the other person is processing what you have to say that it’s almost like mind reading. It’s not actually mind reading, of course, but it can give you an estimate of how your thoughts are being understood. And thinking about what the other person is probably thinking can improve almost any exchange, even in an email or an op-ed piece. You can’t read their faces in those cases, but you can be aware of what each sentence is probably doing to their thought process.

Sophie Okolo: From M*A*S*H to The West Wing to The Blacklist, how has improv endured in your approach to acting?

Alan Alda: Improv has helped me relate to the other actor in ways I never could without it.

Sophie Okolo: Are there takeaways from science communication that can help everyday people live healthier lives?

Alan Alda: I think an obvious connection is what we were talking about earlier. It feels good to relate in an open, personal way. There are many studies that suggest that living without spouses and friends can shorten your life. The more comfortably you can relate to others, the more likely you are to have those life-enhancing relationships. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

Sophie Okolo: People are living longer and healthier lives which opens the door for second careers. I know you’re still very much engaged in acting, but would you consider coaching scientists on better communication to be an encore career?

Alan Alda: At the moment, I’m doing about three careers at once. It’s certainly keeping me interested. I’ve found that allowing myself to develop interests apart from the main things I do is a kind of life insurance. No matter what happens, I’ll always have something fun to do.

Sophie Okolo: One element of the Center’s mission is to encourage healthy, productive, and purposeful aging. How has having this mission of communicating science—a career outside of acting—enhanced the quality of your life?

Alan Alda: For me, the most satisfying and most motivating feeling comes from believing that I’m helping. I think our work is helping to change things in a big way, and that makes for a very happy life.

Sophie Okolo: What helps you stay active?

Alan Alda: As long as I have something to contribute, I don’t know why I would stop.

Sophie Okolo: You’ve written a great book! What do you hope readers will take out of it?

Alan Alda: I hope they carry with them the awareness that every time they try to communicate with someone they have to put at least as much attention on what’s going on in the other person’s head as they do on what they have to tell them. The listener is your partner, not your target.

It was a privilege to interview Alan Alda about his book. The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging’s goal to explain technical and scientific concepts to broad audiences continues as we work to encourage prevention, wellness, and scientific advancement to extend healthy life through research, convening, informing, and educating. Whether you are a scientist, entrepreneur, or investor, effective communication creates positive relationships in all areas of life. We look forward to applying the book’s message to our healthy aging program.

Written By:

Sophie Okolo

Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging