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For Alan Alda, the heart of good communication is connection

June 21, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
As an actor, educational TV host and founder of a scholarly center for communication science, Alan Alda has used his trademark humor and wit to help others express complicated ideas in accessible language. Now he's written new book called "If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face?" Alda sits down with Jeffrey Brown to offer a lesson in communication.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a lesson in communication from an unlikely, but very familiar source.

It’s the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: One enormous turn in the life of Alan Alda, his 11- year run in the 1970s and ’80s as the star of “MASH,” one of the most beloved programs in television history.

ALAN ALDA, Author, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?”: Hello, and welcome to “Scientific American Frontiers.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Another, by his own account, came in 1993, when he began to host the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers.”

He was a non-scientist learning on the go, using his trademark humor and wit to get the experts to explain complicated ideas in accessible language.

ALAN ALDA: What keeps the water from going in here? I mean, it’s …

MAN: Well, it’s actually tapered. If you look at the hatch, it’s like a porthole.

ALAN ALDA: Oh, I see.

MAN: And pressure pushes them down.

ALAN ALDA: What I brought to it was curiosity and a huge fund of ignorance.


ALAN ALDA: And I just was after them until it could fill up the ignorance a little bit with real stuff.

But that process of connecting with them, getting them to be who they were, because they were worried about getting me to understand it, so it was much more personal. And that’s when I realized that you could build on that. You can help people do that all the time.

OK, now he’s leaving.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, he worked to help scientists and science writers do it all the time, helping to found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.

Now comes a book for the rest of us, with the colorful title “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?”

Alan Alda and I met recently at Lisner Auditorium in Washington before he gave a talk about the problem and promise of communicating.

ALAN ALDA: What I think I found is, that it’s all based on a personal connection, that if I can sort of understand in some way, make some approximation of what you are thinking and feeling, it’s easier for me to get inside your head with my message.

If I don’t know how you’re receiving it, if I can’t see how it’s landing on you, then I’m just spraying it at you. I’m just trying to pour it over your head, but I’m not really connecting with you.

Well, that connection — this is what I don’t understand — that connection with another person feels so good. Why do we retreat from it? I don’t understand that.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re living in a time where there’s not only skepticism, but even outright hostility from a lot of people towards science. Is that just a communication problem?

ALAN ALDA: I think it’s largely a communication problem, because there has to be trust, and you get trust through — one way you get trust is through good communication.

There are lives at stake. Take doctors.


ALAN ALDA: When patients regard their doctors as being empathic, at least one study has shown that the patients are 19 percent more likely to follow the doctor’s advice.

Now, in that 19 percent, I imagine some lives are at stake.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, so some of this is life-and-death communication.

ALAN ALDA: Yes. Yes.


ALAN ALDA: Science needs to be understood by the public, so they can support science.

I don’t tell the people I care about the most the most important thing I can tell them, that I do care.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Alda, better communicating starts with better person-to-person relating, a concept he had to learn as a young actor.

ALAN ALDA: I knew you were supposed to relate in the beginning.


ALAN ALDA: And I would do the best I could to relate. I thought it meant leaning into the other person’s face, so I was sort of stooped over most of the time.


ALAN ALDA: But, little by little, I realized you can relate to somebody on the stage even if their back is turned to you. You pick up whatever clues you can.

And when you don’t have clues to pick up, you can estimate what they’re probably thinking by virtue of what’s just been said, or what you have said, or what you have just written them. You can picture what the reader is thinking with each sentence you put down. It really affects all forms of communication.

JEFFREY BROWN: In several chapters of the book, you describe these training sessions that you had with scientists and many others. But then you talk about improv classes, right? Improv, we think of as comedy.

ALAN ALDA: I know. Most improvisation that people are aware of is comedy improvisation. But that’s not what we teach. We teach a much purer form of improvisation in the form of exercises.

And they’re all designed one on top of the other, starting with a very basic kind of exercise that enables you to do the next one, and then that enables you to do the next one, and they all put you in touch with the other person. You have to observe the other person, and really carefully to improvise.

I have to know — I have to know, from your body language and your face, what you’re doing and what you’re thinking. I’m reading your face right now. It’s really fun. Let’s make it…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. What’s going on?


ALAN ALDA: Yes. Well, I hear you following me, and then I hear you thinking, I wonder what I will ask next?


JEFFREY BROWN: Really? You could see that?


ALAN ALDA: Yes, from — yes, mostly when you look down at the paper.


JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, right. That’s a dead giveaway. Hmm.

ALAN ALDA: Yes, but I’m picking it up.

You know. It’s so funny. Once in a while I will be talking to somebody and I will think I’m connected to them. And I will say, wait a second. In my head, I will say this. What color is his eyes? What color are his eyes? What’s the shape of his nose?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And then you realize, what, you’re not really paying attention.

ALAN ALDA: I got — I realize, when I think back, there’s been sort of a blob where your face would — should be.


JEFFREY BROWN: I hope I haven’t dissolved to blobness.

ALAN ALDA: No, you’re not blobby at all, no.


That’s good to know, and also good to see in his work with scientists and writers an attempt to bridge the worlds of science and the arts.

ALAN ALDA: They didn’t used to be kept apart so much. Science and art, or the arts and humanities often were — in Greek times and later, were considered to be different aspects of the same inquiry, the same exploration of being alive in the universe.

And I think they’re long-lost lovers, yearning to be reunited. There’s nothing — they should be reunited. We’re reuniting them with this work on communication, because it’s both an art and a science to figure out what’s the best way to learn to communicate better.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Alan Alda’s book is “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?”

It’s quite a title.

ALAN ALDA: Well, you have quite a face.


JEFFREY BROWN: Thank you very much.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you. I had fun with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nice to talk to you.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you.