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Book Review: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? By Alan Alda
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Book Review: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? By Alan Alda - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? By Alan Alda

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? By Alan Alda

After eleven award-winning seasons as Hawkeye Pierce on TV’s M*A*S*H, actor Alan Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for thirteen seasons. At first, he had difficulty with interviews of cutting-edge scientists because although he was keenly interested in their subject and had read about their research, he wasn’t communicating well with them, so they in turn weren’t communicating well with him. That’s not a good formula for a television program where highly technical subject matter is communicated to general audiences.

In his book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating (Random House, 2017), Alda details the journey that began with those rough, early interviews. He realized after his first awkward attempts that good communication in real life is a lot like good acting on stage: if it’s going to be effective, its participants must be fully attentive to—and aware of—each other via the actor’s tools of relating and empathizing.

Alda led some early activities with science students, first watching as they gave presentations about their areas of study, then guiding them through improvisational activities, emphasizing awareness of others as well as each person’s effect on others. The students participated eagerly, and when they gave their presentations again after the acting workshop, each had improved, no matter how good or bad they were in the first round. “Even guarded, cautious engineering students could be taught to open up, to reveal their own warm humanity—to connect with their audience and speak in a way they never had before. And the flushed, happy faces of the young scientists showed that they had enjoyed doing it,” Alda reports.

These informal experiments led to the establishment of the Center for Communcating Science at Stony Brook University, and Alda breaks down the basic concepts for general audiences in this book. In very accessible prose and with super-interesting anecdotes, Alda illustrates the importance of reading the ongoing feedback (verbal and non-verbal) of listeners, and adjusting to meet their needs until the desired feedback is achieved.

Although immediate feedback isn’t available in written communication or when presenting to an unseen audience, he spends a chapter working through “Reading the Mind of the Reader,” or having “an inkling of what’s going on in the mind of our audience even when they’re not actually in the room with us.” Still using the foundation of improvisation as his launching point, Alda and others at the Center taught writers to do some improv games before writing classes, and there was improved clarity in writing.

Because of the author’s specific experience, the book at first is heavy on science and communication, but it becomes clear that application is near universal. In fact, Amazon lists this among its featured titles in the category of business and money. Interpersonal communication on the micro scale in personal lives also seems a fertile field for these ideas, and Alda’s closing chapter is titled “The Improvisation of Daily Life.” He writes, “If we remember that every conversation we have, every bit of advice we give, every letter we write, can be an exchange in which the other person might actually have a better way of looking at it, then we have a chance to be in sync, to be in a dance with a partner. Not a wrestling match with an opponent.” It’s true that the greater percentage of our problems with others is rooted in faulty communication. The book is worth a read almost no matter who you are for this reason.

 

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Book Review: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? By Alan Alda - Executive Leadership Articles

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