Alan Alda is a talented actor and, apparently, a bit of a social scientist. You may know him from the TV show M*A*S*H. Recently I picked up his book, titled If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? In spite of the long title, the book was a great read! As an actor, Alda has a unique perspective on communication that allows him insight into some of the more subtle ways we humans communicate. I’ll give you the quick version of my takeaways from the book.
The book is divided into two parts: “Relating Is Everything” and “Getting Better at Reading Others.” But if relating is everything, how does one relate? Relating is not just listening and waiting for someone to finish talking, according to Alda. Relating is “listening and willing to be changed”; in essence, getting off the script in your head and actually forming your responses based on what is being said in the present moment. I think so many of us make the mistake of entering a conversation with a certain intent and completely turning the other person off because we try to drag them onto our rails, whether they want to go the same direction or not. In Alda’s mind, a truly productive conversation is one that evolves as the content is spoken. That means using your senses to understand your conversation partner not just verbally, but emotionally through the context of their body language.
An example of this is when he first started as the host of Scientific American Frontiers, a show that ultimately ran for eleven years on PBS. On this show, Alda would interview various scientists and engineers about their projects, passions, and stories and on the very first episode he almost killed the entire series because he didn’t take the time to relate to the engineer he was speaking to. He just spoke after the guy finished his sentence, completely ignoring the context and how uncomfortable his own gestures and words were making this poor engineer. He learned over the course of the show (and subsequent studies) that you have to pay attention to the whole picture—words and physical cues—in order to truly bond in conversation with another human being.
The section on “Getting Better at Reading Others” talks more in-depth about Alda’s experiences and experiments. His studies were conducted almost exclusively with scientists, engineers, or students working hard to enter those types of fields. Now, when you picture someone of this social type, one of the last things you probably think of is their ability to engage people. You may consider them smart folks to be sure, but maybe not eloquent or engaging. Alda gets these people to participate in activities with roots in improvisational theater. One example is the mirror exercise, where two people are facing each other without anything predetermined other than the fact that they cannot speak or move overly quickly. Otherwise, they essentially have to get to a point where they can mirror each other’s movements. The crazy thing is that after a certain period of time where they carefully watched their partner, they were actually able to sync up! Their ability to engage with an audience through speaking was tested on either end of these exercises and the results were incredible. After rounds of these improv activities that forced them to relate to others by watching their smallest physical movements these dry, boring scientists showed better ability to engage an audience through inflection, physical movement, and other elements you’d expect from a well established speaker.
The last spoiler I will drop is Alda’s insight about emotion. Obviously, emotion is very important for an actor, but Alda argues that it is just as important for us regular folk! Emotion is the invisible glue that brings us together, a big force that makes us all a little more relatable. Have you ever noticed that the best people you’ve heard speak, be they actors or professional orators, engage you at an emotional level? They tell stories that make you laugh, cry, worry…. It is through emotion that the social barriers start to break down. Emotion is something everyone feels and that everyone can relate to.
In conclusion, if you’re looking to be a more interesting person or maybe just make your next meeting a little less boring, I would highly recommend reading If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? by Alan Alda. It is a well written book by a man who knows what he is talking about and one that has some actionable content that we amateurs can certainly learn from.