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

by Geoff Hart

Alan Alda. 2017. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.
New York, NY: Random House. [ISBN 978-0-8129-8914-4. 214 pages, including index. US$28.00.]

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2017. Book review: If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating. Technical Communication 64(4):366–367.

If you’re skeptical that actor Alan Alda has much to teach you about communication, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating quickly dispels any doubt; in 214 gently self-deprecating pages, he teaches how to build empathy and communicate better. Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers for 13 years, learning as he did how to help scientists explain their research and its excitement and importance: not just what they do, but why it matters.

Uniting experts with users of their knowledge is what technical communicators do for a living, and “Developing empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking are both essential to good communication” (p. xvii). Alda’s advice improves communication with loved ones, unfamiliar audiences, and experts. Success requires knowing both what you want to communicate and what your audience wants or needs to hear. Failure has consequences. For example, computer security staff have failed to persuade Management to improve security when they focused on technology, but what Management really wanted to know was the bottom-line impact. No matter how clearly they described the technology, managers weren’t listening. Success also requires an understanding of the “curse of knowledge:” what you know isn’t what they know. Most experts assume everyone shares their knowledge, and fail to make that knowledge explicit. Putting ourselves in our audience’s shoes (experiencing their thoughts and feelings, using the products we document) mitigates that problem.

Alda reminds us that communication involves both the head (facts) and the heart (feelings). When they conflict, communication can only occur if we resolve the conflict. Communication fails in other ways, including focusing on our assumptions rather than our audience, ignoring our partner’s body language, and not responding to our partner’s message—in short, through disconnection. Responsive listening re-establishes connections by letting others change our mind and by grasping the difference between one-way lectures and true conversations. Alda teaches the “yes and” technique: rather than disagreeing, accept our partner’s message (yes...) and build on it (and...). He uses improvisational theater to teach people to create shared spaces and shared experiences (i.e., empathy). In this context, communication is a dance with a partner, “not a wrestling match with an opponent” (p. 194). Working together, students learn to fluidly switch between leading and following. But you don’t need improvisation courses to learn such empathy; you need only remember to pay close attention to spoken and unspoken clues, particularly when you’d rather just get on with your day.

Alda has other important lessons: We must tell enough to interest our audience, then relinquish our leadership and let them tell us what more they want. Laughter, emotion, and story make communication memorable. We underuse these tools. We can incorporate Alda’s empathy-based approach, possibly complemented by such tools, in training, iterative design, and social media by integrating knowledge transfer with audience feedback.

Anyone who values clear communication, in person or in writing, will benefit from If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?


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