Common Denominators: A review of If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face by Alan Alda

Reviewed by Karen Corinne Herceg

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face:
My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating
by Alan Alda
Random House
202 Pages; Print, $28, June 6, 2017, Hardcover

Most of us know Alan Alda as an award-winning actor, particularly from his eleven seasons on the hit television series M.A.S.H. As Captain Hawkeye Pierce, he perfected the double entendre and danced a fine line between humor and tragedy. He not only entertained us, he touched our hearts and enlightened our minds. Now in his ninth decade, he shows no signs of slowing down his penchant for inquiry. It is a testament to his longevity on multiple levels. In many ways he is our “everyman”—someone with fame, accomplishments and recognition but also someone we feel comfortable with, who understands how we feel. He’s smart but approachable and speaks our language.

A life-long interest in science led Alda to engage with various renowned scientists and scientific organizations. This included hosting the acclaimed PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers” that also aired for eleven years. He has played a physicist on Broadway and authored the play Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie. He was named a fellow of the American Physical Society in 2014 for his work helping scientists with communication skills. These converging interests led him to establish the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York where he is also a Visiting Professor. It was inevitable that his experience in the entertainment field and quest for scientific knowledge would coalesce. The beauty of it is that Alda is able to share his expertise with us in colloquial, available ways. This sharing is at the crux of his intentions in both fields: communication and relating. The title to his newest and third book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? and its subtitle, “My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating” reflects an intellectual sensibility conveyed clearly and directly. It underscores the very points he is trying to make in this book. Alda has a gift for speaking about lofty ideas in layman’s terms, and his fervor for his subject matter shines through. This passion is at the heart of what engages us.

Alda examines communication in all aspects of life. The lynchpin is the word “relatable.” It is at the heart of compassion that allows us to truly recognize another person and connect with them. Alda often illustrates his points with personal stories and references that bring a universal appeal to his intentions. During his initial foray as host of “Scientific American Frontiers” he blunders through an early interview and learns one should listen with eyes, ears and feelings. As he states, “I hadn’t been listening in three different ways” (P. 6, l. 5). There is a misconstrued assumption that we know where a person is coming from before they actually tell us anything. We need to watch body language and keep all our senses alert. These realizations lead Alda back to his earliest days as an actor and the key ingredients of improvisation and “spontaneous interactions” (P. 6, l. 26). Those exercises created more immediate and genuine responses in connecting with other actors and, certainly, this would correspond to its potential in all relationships. But we have to be vigilant in keeping these connections alive. Alda observes: “But it seemed to be something I had constantly to relearn” (P. 9, ll. 8-9). Perhaps the basic human condition of fear precludes us from implementing these skillsets permanently into our psyche and behaviors. What are the defensive and resistant places we act from in relating to another person? We listen but are often ready to defend, deny or rebut. When do we truly hear, and possibly change, when we are always confronting those sentries of resistance and misunderstanding that stand guard at the doorways to communication? The challenge is to continue to relate openly with true intentions by examining old wounds that intrude upon the process if they remain unexamined and unhealed. These are habits and behaviors instilled in us from our original caregivers and role models. This is one aspect of relating that needs to be given greater priority and consideration when analyzing how all of this really works.

One of the ways Alda confronted communication issues was in his acting career. He realized that “You don’t say your next line simply because it’s in the script. You say it because the other person has behaved in a way that makes you say it” (P. 10, ll. 12-14). There is an active, almost spiritual impetus to live in the moment without the intrusion of anticipatory responses and actions. Perhaps the missing component is those personal wounds, learned behaviors and fears that preclude us from consistently breaking through those barriers. Alda approaches these situations through the dynamic of training. Listening is not enough. As he observes: “I’ve been listening to good pianists all my life and I still can’t play the piano” (P. 20, ll. 7-8). With his legendary good humor, he continues to blend homespun comedic references with serious concerns and applications lending to an easy flow of the text.

Another significant component is empathy. What creates an empathic connection? Alda leads us to the concept of the story as a critical component of conveying messages and communicating with one another. In pondering this, I recalled reading at a poetry event for my newly released book, hoping to generate interest for sales at the conclusion. When reading one particular poem about childhood abuse, I became very emotional. The poem came across as a story about the people and places and how things felt during that time. One man came up to me afterwards and bought a book. As I signed it he told me he hadn’t really planned to buy it until he heard the story and attendant emotion in my voice. He had not experienced a similar situation, but he felt empathy for times he had similar feelings. This is the axis of connection and pertains to Alda’s reference of Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence and social awareness. Goleman posits three separate steps: “…having an instantaneous, primal awareness of another’s inner state (empathy); then, grasping their feelings and thoughts (Theory of Mind); and, finally, understanding” (P. 77, ll. 11-14).

In a section about couples and active listening, Alda discusses the petty annoyances that preclude true interactions. His notes that “…little irritations tend to mount up, but what I’m hearing from researchers…a richer kind of listening can produce a little cooperation and a lot less friction” (P. 79, ll. 3-5). As an example, couples sharing household and other responsibilities equally have less stressful relationships, and usually more sex as well. I’m sure this works on a practical level. But what would happen if those couples plunged even deeper into those petty irritations and why they weren’t working together. Again it goes back to childhood, early modeling behaviors and how we seek to resolve those in partnerships throughout our lives. All relationships reflect many things back to us that are immensely helpful if we can move beyond the blame and shame game. As in the teachings of someone like John Bradshaw, any person we come into contact with can act as a mirror for our own awareness and growth. This brings us back to Alda’s advocacy for improvisation. Working without a script leaves us vulnerable in a good way and open to alternate results, not just the consequences we already anticipate.

Alda also discusses how to work on these issues on our own. It makes sense that we won’t be able to read others very well if we can’t understand ourselves. He spends considerable time observing people’s expressions that, in turn, lead him to guess at the emotion behind the visage. He concludes “…naming other people’s emotions seemed to help me focus on them more and it made talking to them more pleasant” (P. 107-108, ll. 32, ll. 1-2). We learn about someone by actively listening. Still, we need the right tools and attitude to be able to do so. His story of a young man who worked with autistic children illustrated that understanding emotions and making that empathic connection went a lot further than practicing rote exercises.

Mr. Alda offers a lot of scientific experiments to support his journey into the various studies of communication and human relations. He had to remain open to the possibility that not all studies would lead to the conclusions he sought. While awaiting the results of one study, he anticipates a possibly disappointing outcome and notes with his signature humor: “…I took comfort in the idea that I would be able to write an account of an experiment that took an interesting hypothesis and proved it wrong. This would be a helpful thing to do. It would be a service to mankind. In other words, I was slightly depressed” (P. 114, ll. 24-28). In reality most of the experiments supporting evidence of our inter-connectedness offered positive reinforcement.

As writers we need to engage our readers from the very first sentence. This involves focus and clarity. Alda quotes a paper written by George Gopen and Judith Swan, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” that is applicable for any kind of writer: “Readers expect [a sentence] to be a story about whoever shows up first” (P. 137, ll. 9-10). In other words, parse the verbosity and enlist the reader’s interest from the beginning. Gopen posits further that the end of a sentence is vital and “…calls it the stress position, a place of emphasis” (P. 137, ll. 20-21). Alda compares it to the punch line of a joke. But it all speaks to proper communication. And Alda is interested in yoking the divide between science and art in ways that not only illustrate how closely they are related but how they highlight our interconnectedness as people. He demonstrates this beautifully with the story of The Flame Challenge. Children and adults from around the world sent entries on how to best explain the nature of a flame. A last minute entry by university student Benjamin Ames engaged everyone on multiple levels: information, wonderful visuals and an ear-catching song. An improvisation to teach and inform became an example of excellent communication.

Perhaps the best foundation for communicating is examination of oneself. As Alda states: “…by connecting to your self you can connect to your audience” (P. 152, ll. 5-6). We need to be in touch with our own emotions because, as Alda further notes, “…emotion helps us remember” (P. 157, l. 11), and an important link to this can be stress. A stressful experience is an impressionable reminder. But a negative link between memory and stress is not the only avenue to emotion, as Alda reminds us. Laughter works just as well and goes further to engage people in positive ways.

We all need to overcome obstacles, which is at the heart of dramatic action. Challenges are opportunities to understanding, to becoming better people. We need to be passionate about our intentions, keep our commonalities in mind and maintain awareness of the self before we can communicate properly with another. We need to embrace the gifts of failure and keep clear on basics. Alda emphasizes similarities as common denominators, observing that we “…have to be aware we’re alike” (P. 181, ll. 26-27). Perhaps the greatest ingredient at the heart of communication is caring. Mr. Alda has never been lacking in that department, and this latest book confirms that.

About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, essays and reviews. Her latest book is Out From Calaboose, by Nirala Publications (2017). She lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.