If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda

Communication is a big part of my career.  Unlike Alan Alda, my focus has been in the world of public policy and politics, but I am nevertheless interested in communication; how it works, what works better, what we might be missing, etc. And like so many, I have a soft spot for Alda given his iconic role in M.A.S.H.

So when offered an ARC of If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, I jumped at it.  And I am glad I did.

It is an interesting exploration of the importance of connection and empathy in communication. How do you describe the style or genre?  It is pop science mixed with memoir; based on Alda’s unique experience as an actor (particularly improvisation), science documentarian, and proponent of better communication surrounding science.

The nugget of truth the book is built on: the theory of the mind, the ability to understand what another person is thinking and feeling, and empathy, connecting with others on an emotional level, leads to increased communication.  In the book Alda unpacks how he grew to explore and understand this insight via improvisation and research.

Alda interviewed hundreds of experts for the PBS television show Scientific American Frontiers which led him to create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in 2009.  The Center “empowers scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways; leading to improved understanding by the public, media, patients, elected officials, and others outside of their own discipline.”

Alda basically takes readers with him as him explores these ideas, poses questions to experts, dives into research, and even uses himself as a guinea pig to test out his theories.

It all comes down to the fact that effective communication happens when people connect; using not just rationality and logic but emotion and storytelling.  We must understand what the other is thinking and feeling and meet them where they are in order to truly communicate. Otherwise we are talking at people or past them.

He fascinatingly relates how improvisational acting games and exercises can help doctors and scientists better relate to their patients and explain their work to the public..  He explores how training yourself to identify and name people’s emotions can make you more empathetic and thus a better communicator.  And he outlines how emotional stories grab people’s attention and help them remember.

Because of Alda’s light touch and personal approach, the book, despite the science involved, is a quick and easy read.  But the nuggets and insights should not be underestimated.  Anyone interested in connecting with others and communicating more effectively will enjoy and benefit from reading this book.

And who among us couldn’t use to improve in this crucial area of life?


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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