Responsive, transformative, contagious – Alan Alda’s three elements of listening

I’m currently taking part in an online science communication book club that’s discussing Alan Alda’s latest book “If I understood you, would I have this look on my face?” As well as being a well-known TV personality, Alda is the founder of the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The Center draws upon improv techniques for some of the trainings that it provides to scientists to help them improve their communications skills. In this book Alda outlines three elements of listening that are vital in being able to relate to one another.

Lessons from a M*A*S*H*ter communicator…
Image credit: author’s own

1. Responsive listening

You might know what it’s like to be sat in a meeting, waiting your turn to speak, mentally rehearsing what it is that you want to say. You’re probably not fully listening to what’s being said and so when it comes to communicate your comments you’re in fact somewhat disconnected from the people you’re speaking to.

Responsive listening, by contrast, is when we pay close attention to the person speaking such that whatever we say is in direct response to them – making the conversation come alive.

2. Listening and being willing to be changed

This is a theme that’s come up again and again recently – the notion that communication is not just about the transfer of information but that both parties are changed as a result of the interaction. That change could involve building trust in the other person because you’ve felt emotionally understood, it could result in a change of opinion that has a knock-on effect in your future decision-making, or maybe it prompts another emotion in you such as laughter or relief. Whatever the change, the notion is that if we’re truly engaged with another person during an exchange then we will come away from the interaction in some way shaped by it.

This has a couple of implications – firstly that we need to bring a personal awareness to our interactions so that we can catch any knee jerk reactions we might have to a topic before we lose our place in the present moment and miss the opportunity to really interact with what is being said. Or if we’re trying to convey information, we don’t get swept away by our enthusiasm for the subject and bombard the listener with too many details, or slip into jargon that they can’t decipher.

Ideally we’re coming to the conversation with “beginner’s mind” – as if it’s the first time we’re ever talking about this topic – which is what I think Alda is getting at when he uses the term ignorance. The way to stay focused in the moment without getting swept away by assumptions is to keep coming back to it with curiosity about what is actually happening.

Secondly, the possibility of participants being changed by the interaction also means we have a responsibility to be careful with our words and the way in which we deliver them, realising the effect our response can have. This is something that Alda elaborates on later with examples including doctor-patient exchanges and teacher-pupil conversations.

3. Contagious listening

The third element of listening that Alda emphasises early in the book is that dynamic conversation can arise very naturally when you’re really listening to one another. Being heard encourages the speaker to be more responsive themselves leading to a much more satisfying exchange. This is really a combination of points one and two – namely that responsive listening leads to being changed by the encounter which can include opening up and really connecting with the other person on a much more meaningful level.

Further reflections

In our book club discussions we considered whether these tips only apply to in-person, one-to-one interactions or whether it’s possible to translate them online and into group activities such as giving presentations. Often online we can be distracted and trying to do multiple things at once, which means we’re not really listening responsively, nor probably have the space to be changed by the interactions. Asynchronous conversations may also make it harder to convey responsiveness when there’s a delay between delivery of information and the reply to it.

Another observation was that when running workshops or other outreach events, we may have a set script for how we intend to deliver the event which doesn’t allow the opportunity to be responsive to the audience – and literally change what we might say next or how we might say it. We considered whether we might add more deliberate pauses to gauge the audience’s reactions so far and adjust our communication accordingly.


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