What Can Alan Alda Teach You About Empathy?

Actor Alan Alda’s 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 is a deep dive into what matters most in communication—empathy. Leaders, trainers, and interviewers will find valuable tips on how to build and sustain connection to others. 

Alda describes some of the lessons he learned while interviewing others. One key behavior Alda had that might especially interest hiring managers: Alda often found himself abandoning his list of questions in order to have a more meaningful conversation. 

Why was this a helpful way to improve interaction? It turns out that people tune out when they think the other person is more interested in running down a list than listening. How many great candidates have hiring managers pegged as disengaged, when the reality is that they were the ones who failed to make the connection?

Alda references emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman as a touchpoint underlining the power of empathy in human interaction. Alda characterizes empathy as transformative, and points to the experience of a salesperson, along with several other anecdotes, to highlight how a focus on the other person can make a tremendous difference in increasing human connectivity. The best and most loyal customers tend to be those where the salesperson made some mistakes - but then made it up to his / her customers. 

Truly seeing the other person and focusing on his or her needs rather than one’s own are two crucial steps in driving connection. Imagine leaders spending more time learning about their team members as people outside of work. Imagine the change in reaction from a hiring panel if job seekers focused as much on making connections as recapping their career highlights. 

What’s your experience? Do you connect more strongly with those who strive to connect with you? Has it made a difference in your career? Your company?