In addition to his acting career, Alan Alda studies and writes about how we can listen better, connect more and learn from each other.
Posted in , Sep 29, 2017
Not too long ago, I heard Alan Alda interviewed on NPR’s “Science Friday.” Even as I was surprised to hear the famous actor talking in such an in-depth way about new scientific research, I was delighted to learn that he has devoted decades to understanding the science of communication—and maybe more accurately stated, the art of how scientists can better communicate professionally and with lay people.
Alda is the founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, and he has written an amusingly-titled and highly insightful new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader
The book is a useful—and fun to read—resource for anyone who has ever struggled to understand others or to be understood by them. I suspect this applies to most everyone at one point or another, and Alda offers a number of concrete, research-based techniques for improving the way we listen (spoiler alert: don’t just do it with your ears) and relate to the people we communicate with in our work, family, friendship and community lives.
One finding that stood out to me had to do with empathy, which is a fundamental requirement for communicating in an authentic and meaningful way. Alda describes research conducted at Stony Brook that identified a key factor in cultivating empathy between two people—noticing.
In the study Alda describes, the more people noticed another’s emotions and intentionally identified the emotional state of the person they were communicating with, the better they scored on an empathy index. Even more intriguing was a companion finding that people who noticed un-emotional attributes of their partner, like hair color, also showed improvement in the empathetic connections they were able to establish.
This idea is deeply connected to the positive path I try to walk each day. Noticing more, practicing more mindful attention, helps me focus on the here and now. After reading Alda’s book, I feel like it has another purpose and benefit. In a world that sometimes seems to defy understanding, it’s helped me show more empathy toward others as a way of understanding more and, in turn, being better understood.