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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER · Award-winning actor Alan Alda tells the fascinating story of his quest to learn how to communicate better, and to teach others to do the same. With his trademark humor and candor, he explores how to develop empathy as the key factor.
“Invaluable.”—Deborah Tannen, #1 New York Times bestselling author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell and You Just Don’t Understand
Alan Alda has been on a decades-long journey to discover new ways to help people communicate and relate to one another more effectively. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is the warm, witty, and informative chronicle of how Alda found inspiration in everything from cutting-edge science to classic acting methods. His search began when he was host of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, where he interviewed thousands of scientists and developed a knack for helping them communicate complex ideas in ways a wide audience could understand—and Alda wondered if those techniques held a clue to better communication for the rest of us.
In his wry and wise voice, Alda reflects on moments of miscommunication in his own life, when an absence of understanding resulted in problems both big and small. He guides us through his discoveries, showing how communication can be improved through learning to relate to the other person: listening with our eyes, looking for clues in another’s face, using the power of a compelling story, avoiding jargon, and reading another person so well that you become “in sync” with them, and know what they are thinking and feeling—especially when you’re talking about the hard stuff.
Drawing on improvisation training, theater, and storytelling techniques from a life of acting, and with insights from recent scientific studies, Alda describes ways we can build empathy, nurture our innate mind-reading abilities, and improve the way we relate and talk with others. Exploring empathy-boosting games and exercises, If I Understood You is a funny, thought-provoking guide that can be used by all of us, in every aspect of our lives—with our friends, lovers, and families, with our doctors, in business settings, and beyond.
“Alda uses his trademark humor and a well-honed ability to get to the point, to help us all learn how to leverage the better communicator inside each of us.”—Forbes
“Alda, with his laudable curiosity, has learned something you and I can use right now.”—Charlie Rose
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Alan Alda has earned international recognition as an actor, writer, and director. He has won seven Emmy Awards, has received three Tony nominations, is an inductee of the Television Hall of Fame, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Aviator. Alda played Hawkeye Pierce on the classic television series M*A*S*H, and his many films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Bridge of Spies. Alda is an active member of the science community, having hosted the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers for eleven years and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Alda is the author of two previous bestselling books, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned and Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My Life As a Lab Rat
Testing an Empathy Exercise
I have a habit of experimenting on myself.
In my twenties, I was fascinated by the notion that a person’s temperature goes up and down during the day. So, to test the idea, for several months I carried a thermometer in my pocket and took my temperature every hour. No matter where I was. Understandably, I appeared a little weird to the people I had meetings with while I had this thing sticking out of my mouth.
I got caught up in the same kind of mania when I started looking for ways to practice mind reading on my own. I wanted to see if I could improve on my abilities at empathy and Theory of Mind and I was searching for a kind of personal human-contact workout gym.
I started by practicing reading the faces of strangers – people in the street, store clerks, taxi drivers – trying to get inside their heads and figure out why they were saying what they said, the meaning of their body language and tone of voice.
I practiced listening to people; asking their opinion about things. Even in casual encounters, I tried to see things through their eyes.
I did it everywhere I went. It was a little less obvious than walking around with a thermometer in my mouth, but no less obsessive. Surprisingly, it seemed to be having an effect on me. Maybe it was causing a change in the tone of my own voice or the look on my face. Something seemed to be changing, because the behavior of other people was becoming different.
One day, I hailed a taxi at Columbus Circle. The cab pulled up and the driver rolled down the passenger window and called out to me, “Where are you going?” When drivers ask you this before you get in the cab, it means they won’t take the fare unless they like where you’re going. This is against the law. I drove a cab for a while in my twenties and I know how annoying it can be to have to drive to far flung places–I once had to dig my cab out of a snow bank in the Bronx at two in the morning–but I went where the passengers wanted to go, because I knew I had to. When I get asked this question now, my usual response is not to identify compassionately with the driver, but to stoke the fire under my boiling blood. I went, pal, and so can you! is roughly my thought and I walk away without negotiating.
But this time, I looked him in the eye. I saw no hostility. It’s the end of his shift, I thought. He wants to get home. Suddenly, I was all empathized up. I gave him the address, and he let me get in the car. I was surprised I didn’t feel my usual resentment at having to audition for a cab ride, but then he said: “What’s the cross street?” This was another flash point. I’ve never been there before, I thought. How am I supposed to know the cross street!? Isn’t that sort of your job?
Ordinarily, I would start boiling again. Instead, I took out my iPhone and opened a map. “I’m looking it up for you,” I said. We were getting to be real team mates.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m trying to get to a bathroom. I needed to go for the last half hour.”
“So, look,” I said, “Just drop me at 86th and Broadway. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“No. No,” he said. “You’re a kind person. People get in this cab, they don’t care about other people. I’m taking you where you’re going.”
“No, look,” I say, “It’s all right. It’s only a couple of blocks.”
Now, we were in an ecstasy of cooperation.
“Don’t make the turn here,” I say, “you’ll have to go four blocks out of your way. You’ll waste five minutes.”
“NO! You’re a nice person. I’m taking you to the door.”
I couldn’t stop him. This man was sacrificing his bladder for me. I wished I’d never started the whole thing.
I stopped practicing empathy for a while; it was exhausting. But I couldn’t stay away for long. I started in again, with a slight shift. I began to look at people’s faces not only to guess what they were feeling, but to actually name it. I would mentally attach a word to what I thought was their emotion. Labeling it meant that I wasn’t just observing them; I was making a conscious effort to settle on the exact word that described what I saw. This had an interesting effect on me. First, I felt I was listening more intently to what they were saying, even if earlier I had found them somewhat boring. And secondly, I would feel a sense of comfort, almost a sense of peace, come over me. It seemed a little bizarre, but so far it wasn’t causing people to sacrifice their organs for me.
The feeling of peace was probably just a sense of relaxation.
Whatever it was, naming other people’s emotions seemed to help me focus on them more and it made talking to them more pleasant. I had no idea, of course, if other people who tried this would have the same experience, or if it was true that I was building up some empathy. Someone would have to do a study on it to find out. But I didn’t expect anyone to devote research time to studying such a cockeyed idea. On the other hand...
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