Book review: ‘If I understood you, would I have this look on my face?’ |

Book review: ‘If I understood you, would I have this look on my face?’

Karina Wetherbee
In Alan Alda's most recent book, he talks aout how in some industries, such as science, having a real gift for communication can make all the difference.
Special to the Daily |

When one hears the name Alan Alda, one can’t help but think of that wisecracking, yet deeply committed doctor, Hawkeye Pierce, from the beloved TV show “M*A*S*H*.”

Fewer people, though, are as familiar with Alan Alda, the science-lover and writer, but it should come as no surprise that Alda, after years of undertaking his own personal study and scientific exploration, manages to evoke a wit and wisdom comparable to the iconic character that he made his own.

Alda’s most recent 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 an enjoyable layperson’s examination of a universal subject — communication. Humans are social animals, and much of our success is based on our ability to read clues and signals from those around us. But Alda stipulates that in spite of this commonality, “pretty much everybody misunderstands everybody else.”

Communication is all about cooperation

Alda sets forth to examine some tools he believes go a long way toward improving communication, dialogue and, ultimately, understanding. In addition to his own personal anecdotes and studies, Alda incorporates the perspectives of experts in a range of fields, including several from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a facility he helped found at Stony Brook University in New York.

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For his part, Alda believes that acting, his own niche of understanding, taught him valuable lessons about communicating, as acting and relating to what is around you go hand in hand.

“You don’t say your next line simply because it’s in the script. You say it because the other person has behaved in a way that makes you say it.” But, in spite of his dramatic training, Alda discovered that he still had things to learn when it came to relating to the world beyond the theater or production set. Acquiring the ability to listen on stage did not necessarily translate to listening to people in his daily life.

Poor communication stifles progress. “Not being truly engaged with the people we’re trying to communicate with, and then suffering the snags of misunderstanding, is the grit in the gears of daily life.” Unfortunately for many, Alda included, learning about the most common errors in communicating takes place through experience, through trial and error. Communication is all about cooperation, which encourages forward momentum, and discourages negative pushback, and finding that balance is a daily challenge.

Within some industries, having a real gift for communication can make all the difference, and Alda studies — and helps guide — people working in the sciences, for often those with an analytical mind can get lost within the accepted scholastic verbosity, and the message or new discovery that they are so eager to share gets lost in translation. Very often, this occurs, Alda says, because of a basic inattention to the audience in question, and because of how the overall message is being crafted.

As Alda sees it, science — as well as other challenging and often esoteric disciplines — succeed when they can be communicated well to others. Educators, doctors and politicians can benefit from the most basic aspects of how relatable they can make their particular topics. They usually are not lacking in enthusiasm about their subjects, but very often they can fail at delivering the subject to a less interested — or less capable — audience.

Cultivating empathy is key

The core of Alda’s book is focused on the tools he has learned through his own theatrical training, namely improvisation. Improv exercises teach much more than comedic timing. At its most basic, improvisation trains someone to listen and to react. Being aware of how someone else is feeling, and how one’s own self is feeling, and being in tune with one’s surroundings promotes a generally improved empathetic outlook. And empathy, Alda says, is at the heart of communicating.

Cultivating empathy is key to a more compassionate and generous spirit, whether it be the sharing of ideas, talent or prosperity. Finding common ground is important in getting anything to resonate, and there is a benefit to all participants when an empathetic approach is used. The acquisition of all knowledge and the education system, in general, should be circular, with a feed-back loop, not one-way or linear. Effective teachers and lecturers, more importantly, need to be good listeners.

“Emotion itself is an ancient, fundamental means of gaining and keeping knowledge,” Alda says.

People who are effective communicators are participants in the human gift of oral storytelling, which has been a powerful force that has bound humanity together across time and distance. Alda has proven that he can be a perceptive mentor and teacher of this collective human narrative.

As Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Karina Wetherbee has been a photographer for more than 30 years, taking her across the world on assignment. In addition to her work as a photographer, she published her first book in 2004, a memoir about her father’s childhood during World War II. She also writes book reviews for the Summit Daily and Vail Daily. Visit for more information.

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