doctor teach you about communicating with
patients? He can if it’s Alda, who played Dr.
Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H from 1972-
1983. Alda is actually a doctor, of sorts. In
2017, the University of Dundee in the U.K.
gave him an honourary Doctor of Laws for
his work promoting good communication in
Beyond his acting career, Alda advocates for
clarity. For 11 years he hosted Scientific Ameri-
can Frontiers on PBS. He’s a visiting professor
at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating
Science at Stony Brook University (aldacenter.
org/). The centre has developed a series of
programs and workshops
taught at medical schools
and universities, and have
Think of what
trained over 14,000 scien-
tists and doctors.
Alda wrote a 2017 best-
and need to know
called If I Understood
most, and give it
You, Would I Have This Look
to them first.
on My Face? about com-
munication in science and
life. In 2018, he launched the podcast Clear
+ Vivid, featuring conversations with guests
about how to relate to and communicate with
In his book, Alda cites a meta-analysis that
showed how effective communication with
patients improves adherence, satisfaction and
even health status. What has he learned about
what goes right and wrong in doctor-patient
interactions? Here are four valuable lessons
gleaned from Alda’s book and podcast.
Make listening an action
As an actor, Alda says you don’t say
your next line just because it’s in
the script. You say it because the
other person in the scene behaved in a way
that makes you say it. “Real conversation can’t
happen if listening is just my waiting for you
to finish talking,” he writes.
Understanding that on stage or in front of
the camera affects your acting. But he says it’s
also a first step in figuring out what has to oc-
DIALOGUE ISSUE 2, 2019
cur between doctors and patients.
Alda refers to responsive listening. It’s not
a passive activity. Unless you’re willing to be
changed by the other person talking, you’re
probably not really listening. But if you do lis-
ten openly – not just to someone else’s words,
but their tone of voice and body language
too – Alda says “there’s a chance that a true
dialogue will take place.”
There’s an improvisation exercise
called mirroring. What can it
teach about being better commu-
nicators? Alda has done it with the scientists.
In the exercise, there’s a leader and a follower.
The leader has to do a series of slow move-
ments, like stretching an arm or scratching
a face. The follower has to mimic it with no
delay, so that you can’t even tell the leader
from the follower. It’s just like looking into a
In the beginning, the pairs can have trouble.
The follower has a slight lag time. The leader
is going too fast. The follower can’t keep up.
So the leader has to deliberately slow down.
Once the two people have got it, the exercise
switches up. Now the follower becomes the
leader, and the leader becomes the mirror.
Again, they can struggle, but get the hang of it
The lesson? The person communicating (the
leader) is responsible for how well the other
person follows. It’s the follower’s responsibility
to catch up; it’s the leader’s responsibility to go
slower. Then you can be in sync.
Think of how this applies to not only the
pace of information but the nature of it. Are
you in danger of overloading your patients at
times? Do they want all the detailed facts? Are
they able to process them in the moment?
Sometimes, Alda writes, patients “need
presence more than knowledge.” He shares
the story of an internist who told a patient
about her metastatic lung cancer. The patient
listened, but didn’t seem to understand. So a
medical student along on the rounds asked