Book review: If I understood you… by Alan Alda

Alan Alder book cover

Reviewed by Christopher Richards

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. Alan Alda uses this epigraph, usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw, to orient the reader. If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating by Alan Alda is a must-read for anyone who seeks to be understood.

So much of what passes as communication misses an important point. What we say isn’t necessarily what other people hear. Communication is far more than coming up with a message and releasing it into the wild.

Much of this book relates to Mr. Alda’s training as an actor. He works with scientists, doctors, and engineers to help them communicate better using improvisational theatrical techniques and storytelling.

Effective acting elicits an authentic emotional response from other actors. It isn’t just saying your lines at the right time. And a genuine connection requires respect for how other people experience and interpret the world. 

Awareness

Theory of mind and empathy are two fundamental themes in this book. Both are about relating. Theory of mind is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes: to anticipate what other people are thinking.

Empathy is responsiveness to what they might be feeling. Few professionals learn how to be understood, but it is a learnable skill. Mr. Alda has proven this with his real-world examples of theatre games based on the work of Viola Spolin’s seminal book, Improvisation for the Theater.

On a neural level empathy is why we cringe when we see someone suffering, or laugh with others. The comedian Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Laughter is a shared response, an empathetic bond. Empathy is the ability to be affected by someone else.

It’s being so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you’re observing them. It’s letting everything about them affect you; not just their words, but also their tone of voice, their body language, even subtle things like where they’re standing in the room or how they occupy a chair. Relating is letting all that seep into you and has an effect on how you respond to the other person.[i]

Bonding with others is a neurochemical event.

Trust and empathy

Either trust increases oxytocin or oxytocin promotes trust. Reading literary fiction may foster empathy as we encounter the emotional lives of characters.  Mr. Alda’s book occasionally turns up the unexpected. Active listening matters. According to the author, research suggests that people cooperate more as empathy increases, and who would have thought that when men share the housework with their wives, it leads to more sex? Apparently, it does. This book has value!

Active listening isn’t about being lectured. Steve Strogatz, a mathematician friend of Mr. Alda, told him “the trouble with a lecture is that it answers questions that haven’t been asked.” Few people want to be talked at. Lectures are an example of the get-the-word-out problem. What’s important is to understand what the recipient is eager to know.

Getting it wrong

Communication is as much an art as it is a science. Audiences have expectations. Scientific and academic audiences expect ideas to be presented in a familiar sequence. This group is likely to reject a different format.

Misunderstanding can have dire consequences. Poor communication is often jargon-rich. As Mr. Alda points out, jargon has its place as a shortcut among professionals. But it risks misuse and can disguise ignorance. Here is an abstract of a research paper by Ike Antkare (a fake name) entitled Developing the Location-Identity Split Using Scalable Modalities. It was one of the most cited articles in professional journals and on Google Scholar. The only problem was it was complete gobbledygook created by artificial intelligence. Here is part of the jargon-rich nonsensical abstract.

The implications of atomic communication have been far-reaching and pervasive. The notion that steganographers connect with “smart” archetypes is continuously considered intuitive. Along these same lines, this is a direct result of the development of the World Wide Web. Thus, the investigation of write-back caches and DHCP have paved the way for the refinement of e-business.[ii]

The primary goal of communication is to be understood. And Mr. Alda tells us the responsibility for this lands on the shoulders of the communicator, not the recipient.

No matter the audience, the message must be accessible, understandable, and relevant. Who wants to be swamped by information? Know when enough is enough. Winston Churchill once opined, “This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read.” Communicators must know how to connect with audiences, what those people need to know, and why they will be receptive.

Structure

Each of the twenty-one chapters is short and digestible, as you would expect from an accomplished communicator. Part one, containing the first eleven chapters, is on relating. The remainder of the book is on getting better at reading others, the importance of story, the dangers of jargon, and the curse of knowledge. This book emphasizes the importance of improvisation and is replete with anecdotes and examples of how people can become better communicators.

Teaching theater games to scientists and engineers is certainly a challenge. The good news is many of us have undiscovered capabilities just waiting to be developed. This reviewer has spent a couple of years as part of a theatrical improv group and benefited greatly. Anyone who needs to communicate can find value in this book. It might just stimulate them to act.

If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating by Alan Alda may be one of the longest titles for a business book, but it’s a short and valuable read.

Christopher Richards is a business-book ghostwriter and has no affiliation with the author or the publisher of this work.


[i] Alda, Alan. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating (Kindle Locations 252-255). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] ibid (Kindle Locations 2627-2630).