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

Cathy GassenheimerSee if you can guess who wrote these paragraphs. Don’t peek! Could it be Jim Knight? Edgar Schein? Richard Elmore? Peter Senge? Seth Godin?

Not being engaged with the people we’re trying to communicate with, and then suffering the snags of misunderstanding is the grit in the gears of daily life. It jams our relations with others when people don’t ‘get it,’ when they don’t understand what we think is the simplest of statements.

You run a company and you think that you are relating to your customers and employees, and that they understand what you’re saying, but they don’t, and both customers and employees are leaving you. You’re a scientist who can’t get funded because the people with the money just can’t figure our what you’re telling them. You’re a doctor who reacts to a needy patient with annoyance; or you love someone who finds you annoying, because they just don’t get what you’re trying to say.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. For the past twenty years, I’ve been trying to understand why communicating seems so hard—especially when we’re trying to communicate something weighty and complicated.

These ideas and concerns about effective communication are certainly shared in some way by all of the thought leaders I mentioned above. The author of this passage then goes on to say:

I started with how scientists explain their work to the public: I helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, and we’ve spread what we learned to universities and medical schools across the country and overseas.

If you follow news about books – or even celebrity gossip! – that might be enough of a clue. The actual author of this passage is veteran TV, stage and movie actor Alan Alda. Yes, “Hawkeye” himself!

I ordered his new best-seller, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating (Random House, 2017), after seeing Alda interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show.

Rose and Alda had a fascinating conversation that illuminated a side of Alda of which I was unaware. As the above passage mentions, Alda has spent more than 20 years trying to help scientists, doctors, and others become more effective communicators.

And, like other experts in communication, Alda learned that it begins with listening.

What it means to really listen

Alan Alda formed his conclusions about listening through his more familiar work: acting. More specifically, he learned the value of deep listening through the practice of improvisation. Simply put, improvisation involves two or more actors responding to a prompt or situation without any previous notice or rehearsal.

Alda describes participating in a workshop experience with Paul Sills, the founder of Chicago’s renowned The Second City comedy troupe, where actors would be led through games involving improvisation. Something “magic” began to happen, he writes.

“What one player did was immediately sensed and responded to by the other player. And that, in turn, created a spontaneous response in the first player. It was true relating and responsive listening, which, I’ve come to realize, is necessary on the stage and in life as well (p. 8).

Some well-known good listeners (click to enlarge)

Alda learned that when in an improvisation he reacted in a certain way because of the other player’s behavior. He describes this reaction as “finding your performance in the other person’s eyes” (p. 10). As a result of his experiences doing improv:

I came to the conclusion that, even in life, unless I’m responding with my whole self—unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you—I’m probably not really listening (pp. 10-11).

This book is fascinating and enlightening. It’s also fun to read because you can “hear” Alda’s unique voice an delivery as he tells his story. And, speaking of stories, he stresses that effective communication—both verbal and written—should begin with a story, the best “hook” around.

Alda advocates the use of stories containing obstacles. An obstacle engages the reader or listener into someone else’s struggle to achieve something. As an example, Alda compares these two brief descriptions:

  • Seeing someone take a stroll on a mild day
  • Seeing someone walking in a storm leaning into a gale force wind

Which is more interesting to you?

Team Communications

In the book, Alda also mentions his interest in learning how teams effectively communicate. Referencing a study by Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University, Alda said he learned that effective teamwork was not dependent on the collective IQ of the group.

Instead, Woolley and her colleagues discovered three key factors in effective team performance (p. 57):

► The ability of members of the group to freely take part in discussions;

► Members’ scores on a standardized test of empathy; and

► The presence of women in the group

Empathy may actually be the most important factor, according to experts. Women typically score higher on empathy tests, so the more women on a team, the greater likelihood of success.

The study’s other surprising factor was that effective teams communicated well both in person and online. “Whether face-to-face or online…some teams consistently worked smarter than others. And, the reasons they worked smarter were the same: They had members who communicated a lot, participated equally, and possessed good emotion-reading skills” (p. 57).

I’ve only touched upon a few of the great ideas and suggestions Alda shares in If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? This is certainly a book that anyone interested in communicating more effectively should read. And isn’t that all of us?

So, the next time you are talking with someone and see a puzzled face, remember this book! It might help you reach that person and the many other individuals and teams with whom you communicate.

Here’s a Forbes interview with Alan Alda about his new book.

Visit the Alda Center for Communicating Science website.