Listening to Alan Alda

Listening to Alan Alda

Movie and TV star, many years in Leonia, to headline evening at the JCC in Tenafly

Alan Alda (Photo courtesy of Alan Alda)
Alan Alda (Photo courtesy of Alan Alda)

When you describe a problem to your doctor, does the doctor really listen to you?

When your doctor diagnoses your problem, do you have any idea what she’s talking about?

And what does an actor — a television and movie star, for that matter, who’s been acting and winning Emmys and Golden Globes for that work roughly forever, not to mention MASH, not to mention the West Wing — have to do with that?

Why does he even care?

The actor is Alan Alda, who is not only an actor (and director, and screenwriter, to be a stickler for detail) but also an activist, whose interests, spurred by his 11 years hosting the TV program Scientific American Frontiers, have led him to establish the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He’s both very funny and also deeply serious about the center’s work, and about the importance of listening, of communicating effectively, and of the empathy that such listening and communicating necessarily demands.

When he speaks to the Patron of the Arts’ gala-goers at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’ Sunday, April 15, in a conversation moderated by the Bergen Record’s Bill Ervolino (see box), Mr. Alda will talk about “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating,” the third of his books on the subject.

“This book is about how the things that we discovered about better communication between doctors and patients apply to families, they apply to business situations, they apply to personal relationships — really, they apply to every kind of human interaction,” Mr. Alda said. “It is a little confusing to people because the word science is associated with it, but it is not confined to that area.”

No matter how apparently frontal and one-sided an interaction might be — a lecture, say — it will go over better, be better delivered, better accepted, better understood — if the communication goes both ways. It’s better when the speaker — or the actor, or the stand-up comic — is paying attention to the audience.

Body language counts too.

“Listening isn’t only done with your ears,” Mr. Alda said. “It goes far beyond that.”

Yeah yeah yeah, you’re probably thinking. Typical self-help stuff. Mr. Alda agrees. “These are tips,” he said. People don’t behave in these ways “just because someone tells you that you should. Tips can be relegated to the dustbin. Tips don’t matter. What does matter is experience, is doing that process of listening over and over again until it becomes habitual.”

Well okay then, you’re thinking now. So how does any of this translate into real, specific, concrete life? Mr. Alda’s center works on this, and it does trace back to the interviews he did with scientists on Scientific American Frontiers. “I realized that the scientists I was talking with were coming up with a more personal version of their work in those interviews than they usually did, because we weren’t having a conventional interview. It was a conversation, and what we were doing was improvising.

“I realized that the improvisation training I’d had as a young actor probably was the basis of my learning to communicate well.” Improvisation depends on actors communicating with each other and with the audiences, and that demands that they listen to each other, remain alive and alert to everything around them, and play off the reactions they pick up. “So now we teach scientists and doctors and people in business basic improvisation exercises when we begin training sessions,” he said. Those sessions were created and developed at the center in Stony Brook but now are offered in about 125 universities around the United States and in five other countries. A second company that Mr. Alda created to support the center offers training sessions, including some geared for women who want to become more effective leaders in a business setting.

The center’s work is based around the importance of empathy as well as the importance and impossibility of seeing a problem from both your own perspective and someone else’s, and of at the very least understanding that those other perspectives exist, even though they might not find any traction in your own head or heart. Maimonides knew that and wrote about it, Mr. Alda said.

“It is very difficult to communicate with someone unless you can be significantly aware of what they are feeling,” he said. But when, for example, patients feel that their doctors have empathy and some awareness of what it feels like to be given the advice, medication, and diagnoses that they are getting, “they are 19 percent more likely to follow that doctor’s advice,” Mr. Alda said. “If the doctor has paid attention to the patient, hasn’t interrupted, has asked questions that aren’t necessarily about the immediate situation but about the patient as a whole person, the patient is more likely to do what the doctor suggests.”

What about jargon, that ghastly pseudo language that often talks in baroque circles without ever getting to the point? Sometimes, “a lot of us use jargon to sound smarter,” Mr. Alda said, but on the other hand, “sometimes, when two people are collaborating, and they’re speaking exactly the same language, it doesn’t make sense to use 500 words when you can use fewer.” Sometimes what sounds like jargon to an outsider is shorthand to an insider. “I think it goes back to relating to the person you’re talking to,” he said. “This is the old standby — know your audience — but in real time, in an intimate way, not as a generalization.”

When you are talking to a high school audience, he said, “they don’t know the meaning of high-faluting words, and they might welcome you talking at their level — but you can’t know that, and you can’t know their level, without contact with them. Otherwise, you can either be over their heads or come in too low.”

Context matters. “Someone presenting her doctoral dissertation had better talk in the language of that particular discipline, because she is talking to the people who probably invented it, and they expect her to speak at their level. But if she were to give a public presentation to people who have no knowledge of the subject, they wouldn’t know what she was talking about.

How does he know about this? “I have done this talk many times, and I have tailored it so that I know most of it will land okay,” Mr. Alda said. “But I hear it as I say it, and I look carefully at the audience’s faces to see who is with me, who is a little fuzzy, and who is falling asleep.”

Mr. Alda has particularly strong ties to the audience at the JCC. First, there’s the local angle. He and his wife brought up their daughters in Leonia. And then, yes, there is the Jewish part. Mr. Alda’s called himself a lapsed Catholic; his wife, Arlene, is Jewish. (The couple has been married since 1957.)

He suspects that his connection may be through more than marriage, however.

Mr. Alda’s mother was Irish, and his father, the actor and Broadway star Robert Alda, was Italian. Robert Alda’s birth name was the far-too-ethnic-for-its-time Alphonso D’Abruzzo, so he took the first two letters of his first and last names to create the anodyne but marquis-friendly Alda.

“My impression is that I have a long line of Jewish ancestry,” Mr. Alda said. “My Italian grandfather told me that the family left Spain just around 1492.” That, of course, was when the Jews were expelled from Spain. “And there’s the name D’Abruzzo,” which means from Abruzzo, a region in central Italy. “It’s two to one that you’re Jewish if you have a place name, which my name is. The family story is that we went to Naples, which was still controlled by Spain, but Naples had not yet expelled the Jews. A few years later, the Jews were expelled from Naples, and they went north to Abruzzo. Later, they went to a small town outside Naples, and that’s when they would have been called d’Abruzzo.”

He’s now doing genetic testing, Mr. Alda said; he’s tried one test, but “it was totally useless. It just said, ‘You come from the Mediterranean.’

“It also said that I was between two and four percent Neanderthal. I don’t know if that’s the Jewish Neanderthals or not…”

Now, he’s trying his luck with 23andme.

Would he like to find Jewish ancestry? “I would like it very much,” Mr. Alda said. “And if it turns out to be true, my next book will be called ‘Who Knew?’”

Alan Alda will be at the JCC as the second annual speaker in its Patron of the Arts program. “We’re going to have a high-profile public figure every year,” Nina Bachrach, the JCC’s director of arts and culture development, who is overseeing the program, said; last year’s inaugural speaker was Anderson Cooper. “We want to give the community more diverse, new, and exciting cultural arts experiences throughout the year,” she continued. “And you don’t have to be a JCC member to come. You can come to performances and talks and literary events. And if you become a JCC patron of the arts, you get benefits like personal concierge services; depending on your level of sponsorship, you get free tickets, access to VIP seating, reserved parking, and special receptions.”

As glittering as the patron of the arts programs may be, Ms. Bachrach said, the point is not only to expand the JCC’s relationship to both established artists and cutting-edge art, but also to fund the JCC’s perhaps less glamorous but bedrock arts education programs. “The funds we raise go to scholarships for the JCC’s Thurnauer music school, our dance school, and our performing arts school,” Ms. Bachrach said; it’s entirely possible that one day, decades from now, a graduate of one of those schools will return as the cultural arts program’s annual high-profile premier speaker.

Who: Alan Alda

What: Is this year’s Premier Speaker at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’ patron of the art’s evening.

Who else: The Bergen Record’s Bill Ervolino will moderate the conversation and lead the question and answer session that will follow.

When: Sunday, April 15, at 7 p.m.

Where: At the JCC, 411 East Clinton Avenue, in Tenafly

Why: To fund scholarships to the JCC’s art schools

How much: VIP tickets, $360; preferred admission, $100; general admission, $50.

For tickets and more information: Email Nina Bachrach at or go to

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