Sunday, June 4, 2017

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

by Alan Alda
Random House     2017
202 pages            Nonfiction

We all know Alan Alda to be a well-known actor, but what I didn't know about him is that he is a professor of Communications at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He is an expert in communication skills and specializes in training scientists, doctors, and other who must spend their lives communicating.

Alda got his start doing improvisational theater, and later learned a great deal about communication when he hosted the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers. From his studies, he discovered that one of the reasons that people have trouble understanding scientific breakthroughs is because scientists have a difficult time communicating their ideas. He teaches these scientists using the improvisational and interview skills he gained through his career.

I witnessed this scientific communication difficulty just a couple of weeks ago when I attended the PhD dissertation presentation of a friend. His dissertation was about black holes, I guess. The only two words I understood of the entire 45 minute presentation were stars and nebula—and I wasn't really sure if I understood what "nebula" were.

Alda has taught communication skills to scientists and others for several years, and this book is a synthesis the methods he uses. He says about relating to others: "It's being so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you're observing them. It's letting everything about them affect you, not just their words, but also their tone of voice, their body language, even subtle things like where they're standing in the room or how they occupy a chair. Relating is letting all that seep into you and have an effect on how you respond to the other person."

The communication skills Alda teaches are really practical, and the book is full of wonderful advice for anyone who wants to really be in touch with the people with whom she is communicating. Some of Alda's clients are doctors who must deliver sensitive information to their patients. When my young husband was dying and it was near the end, the oncologist, who had taken very good care of my husband—but had kept himself at a distance—came into the room, put his arm around me, and stood there weeping. That moment meant more to me than virtually anything he might have said. This was true communication.

If I Understood You is so very valuable to anyone who needs to impart information to anyone. I should give my copy to my PhD friend as he begins his career.

Here is an interview with Alda on NPR.

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