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Alan Alda: How Advisors Can Communicate Better

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Capt. Hawkeye Pierce of “M*A*S*H” has some indispensable advice for financial advisors. Well, Alan Alda, who played the smart-alecky surgeon on the classic TV series, has indispensable advice for advisors. Oddly enough, it’s about how to communicate better to win and keep clients, and he talks specifics in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

The multi-award winning actor-writer-director, 81, has just released his third book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art & Science of Relating and Communicating” (Random House).

Surprisingly, Alda once worked in the world of financial services, a stint he discusses in the interview, along with what advisors can learn from it.

Broadly, Alda argues that advisors can build trust to obtain and retain clients by understanding their emotions and thinking.

As host of PBS-TV’s “Scientific American Frontiers” 1993-2005, he helped erudite scientists communicate complex concepts of medicine and cutting-edge technology. Since then, his quest is to teach others how to improve their communication skills. This led to establishing the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and now his new company, Alda Communication Training, in New York City. Marketed to business executives and their teams, the firm’s profits go to the Stony Brook center.

Throughout his 60-year showbiz career, Alda has portrayed a mix of heroes and villains in feature films, and on TV and Broadway.

From 1972 to 1983 — 11 seasons — he starred on “M*A*S*H” as a dedicated doctor wielding tart comedy to cope with horrors of the Korean War.

More recently, Alda played bad guys on the TV drama “The Blacklist” and on “Horace and Pete,” a dark web sitcom.

ThinkAdvisor recently spoke by phone with the actor, who was characteristically funny but serious about his mission to teach folks how to communicate better. Here are excerpts from our interview:

THINKADVISOR: As a young actor, you sold mutual funds. Tell me about that.

ALAN ALDA: I had a version in my head of what selling was. It involved getting as much money out of the other person as you could in exchange for whatever they’d take in order to give you the money. That sure didn’t work. So I wasn’t selling anything.

Did you turn it around?

Yes. One day, a woman came to me with a need: She had a few thousand dollars and was looking for a place to put it. She wanted to know about my mutual fund. I didn’t have to convince her about anything. I had to help her find how to fulfill her need. It felt good to me and good to her.

What insight did you gain from that?

I started thinking about what the other person needed, not what I need from them. But my real talent wasn’t in selling; my real talent was in acting. So I started getting acting jobs and didn’t do much more selling.

Why is it critical for financial advisors to communicate well?

It’s important, not so you can sell people something they don’t need but so you can help them see what they do need if you understand their goals and how they can reach them. If they don’t understand you, your clients are in danger of leaving the way I had to leave my accountant when I couldn’t understand him because he was talking in jargon — for years and years.

Why is that something an advisor should avoid?

I know from personal experience, when an investment advisor is talking to a client, sometimes the most fundamental term isn’t understood. And the client is probably embarrassed to say, “I don’t know what that means.” So it’s a good idea to read a person’s face to see if you can figure out where they are. It’s establishing the other person as your partner in communication and really seeing if you can get to where they are in their head.

You wrote that when you did “M*A*S*H,” the cast would sit around laughing and talking between shots. Why was that a good connector to communicate?

It helped us relate. Laughing together opens you up to the other person because laughter is a state of vulnerability — you’re a little defenseless when you’re laughing. When people laugh together, they warm up to each other much more. So after an hour, when we’d go back to the [M*A*S*H] set, we were really tuned in to one another.

Can you apply that same idea to a business environment?

Small talk at the beginning of a business meeting is so important because you’re connecting on a human level. We’re social animals, and we trust one another more when we’re relating better. Often [at the top of a meeting] you’ll talk about people you know in common or some amusing thing that happened yesterday — something that brings you together and puts you in the same social context.

How can understanding other people’s emotions build trust in a financial advisor?

Trust is so important because if you’re talking about something that’s new to someone, even if you make the terms clear, they still need to trust you to keep working with you. They’ll get that sense of trust in the same way you’re getting it from them: by knowing what you’re thinking and feeling. They’ll be watching your face, listening to your tone of voice.

Any caveats about that?

Nothing should be mechanical. People will spot it if it is. If it’s mechanical, it looks like a lie. The thing is to establish a real relationship with [the client] where you’re relating to them: You’re looking at them, taking them in and letting them have an effect on you. That way, the chance that they’ll trust you is much higher. A person can actually be transformed to have this ability. But it has to be practiced.

Generally, how does one relate better?

It doesn’t involve staring at someone in the eyes. It involves taking in the whole person. Some research I helped get done suggests that there’s a real advantage in increasing your empathy [stepping into the other person’s shoes] by paying close attention to who you’re talking to, trying to figure out what they’re feeling by observing their face. So there’s a little science suggesting it really does matter.

In fact, you write that empathy is the key to, and the heart of, understanding and communicating. Why is it so crucial to develop that?

Empathy is a tool that enables you to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the other person’s emotional world and thought process. If you don’t have a glimmer of that, then you might as well be talking to a blank wall because you’ll have no idea that what you’re saying is registering badly. Unwittingly, you can be contributing to a total misunderstanding of what you want to communicate.

Is empathy a cure-all, then?

No. And it can be used for bad purposes as well as good. One reason people are leery about the word empathy and can be resistant to it — people in business especially — is that it sounds like it’s making you a softie, that you’re not a strong leader if you have too much empathy. That’s the opposite of the truth because it’s much easier to lead people if you know what’s going on in their head.

When you learned to communicate better, did it help with acting?

It did because communicating and relating are connected with acting. When I was doing “The Apple Tree” [on Broadway] with Barbara Harris, [director] Mike Nichols told us that “relating isn’t  the icing on the cake — it’s the cake.” You don’t say your line because it’s written in the script. You say it because the other actor makes you say it by what they’re saying or doing and how they’re doing it. That changes you and makes you respond in a certain way.

Does that apply in real life too?

Yes, because you’re not really listening unless you’re open to be changed by the person you’re listening to. Not being willing to change is what we recognize in another person when they’re not really listening to you — they’re just waiting to contradict you or say what they have to say even though it might have nothing to do with what you just said. 

So what should a good communicator say to get a real conversation going?

“Tell me more about that.” Then you’re actually talking to each other, and it goes where it goes. It’s much more interesting to go where it goes, than in the direction that each of you wants it to go in. That’s two monologues. Who cares!

How essential is it to not only listen but to give the other person feedback as they’re speaking, which is called active, or responsive, listening?

It’s an important idea. But you need to be careful not to do it mechanically by thinking, “All I have to do is repeat what the other person said and let them know I’ve heard them.” There are so many ways to repeat something. So if you’re really pissed at them and not hearing it from their point of view — not really trying to understand what they’re thinking and feeling — you’re liable to say it back in the most unfelt way, and the tone of your voice can sound hostile rather than collaborative.

What’s a good communication exercise for advisors that could help them gain client trust?

“Mirroring.” Two people stand face to face. Very slowly, one starts to move; and right away the other moves as if he or she were the first person’s mirror. By observing the other closely, you pick up clues that can lead to reading people’s feelings and thoughts.

How can the actor’s technique of “yes-and-ing,” when improvising dialogue, help advisors?

First, I’ll explain that bit of jargon from the world of acting. When you’re improvising a scene, it’s the duty of each of you to let the reality the other person has introduced be your reality too rather than deny it. If he says, “Look at all that water down there!’ it’s not a good idea to say, “That’s not water. That’s the floor.” Instead, you could say, “Yes – let’s dive in and swim out to the island.”

So “Yes-and-ing” is agreeing with the other person?

[In real life], if someone makes a comment, you don’t have to agree with the comment itself, you can just agree with the intention behind it — agree in the broadest possible way. But if you add to what the other person is saying [too], then you’re working together and collaborating.

What was the best part of interviewing scientists on your PBS show?

Learning [about science]. I was [also] learning what the heart of communication is. It was conversational: I wasn’t feeding them questions that allowed them to take off on lecture riffs. I was trying to understand what they were saying, and they were drawn into my vortex. If I didn’t get it, I let them know. They were reading me, and I was reading them.

You were talking with people working on the frontiers of science; thus, their discoveries would need some explanation. How did you handle that?

They were steeped in the techniques and technical talk of their work. So it was natural for them to have to fight the impulse of talking in jargon. Relating with each other helped us get past that barrier.

In the 1980s, you were spokesperson for Atari home computers. Did you really get interested in them?

Yes. They sent me all these computers, and I started learning how to program in the BASIC language. I had a lot of fun. One program I wrote mimicked a psychiatric session. It would pick up on words you said, like “Tell me more about your mother. What’s wrong with your job?” And just as you were really getting into it, it would say, “Sorry, your time is up.”

Do you still program, or code?

No. I’m so busy with other stuff. But I do fix my friends’ computers or give them advice on how to fix them. Then I send them a thank you note: “From your friends at Celebrity Tech Support.” The company slogan is: “Why let a nobody touch your stuff!”

It’s been 10 years since I last interviewed you. Talk to you again in 10 years?

Like clockwork!

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