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

by Alan Alda

Excerpts from the book; notes by JFR


Communication and Empathy


Relating = “…letting everything about [another person] 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.”


(regarding mirror neurons…) Humans feel most comfortable when body language, actions, words, etc indicate one’s intentions/plans/preparation for what is about to happen.


Theory of Mind = recognizing that other people have different thoughts based on their experiences; required for deception.


Synchronous movement (marching, walking, tapping, etc) increases trust and cooperation


“Synchrony brings us together.”


Skin conductance tests revealed a therapist was fooled by large-scale body language, while small-scale “tells” were indicating massive anxiety


Group performance is predicted by

  1. ability of members to freely take part in discussion
  2. member’s scores on empathy tests
  3. presence of women in the group


Tone of voice is determined by relationship with the other person (or, by imagined relationship)


Affective resonance = the feeling of connectedness with other people from looking people in the eye, unconsciously falling into sync.


Elementary and High School students scored higher on empathy tests after acting training (especially adolescents); neither music nor visual arts training had the same effect.


“I practiced listening to people, asking their opinion about things. Even in casual encounters, I tried to see things through their eyes.” [later…] “I began to look at people’s faces not only to guess what they were feeling, but to actually name it.”


Naming other people’s emotions, or even just paying any kind of attention to the person, seems to increase empathy.


Simon Baron-Cohen “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test (available online here I got 29 out of 36, apparently equal or better than 74% of participants) (not mentioned in the book but somewhat related: SBC did another study that showed males and females with autism scored the same on the Eyes test, whereas females without autism score significantly higher than males without autism SBC also suggests that autism is an “extreme form of the male [systematizing] brain”)


Eye contact (with people or dogs), meditation, naming emotions, guessing emotions of actors on TV shows with the volume down, and reading literary fiction are all said to increase empathy.


“[Empathy for one individual] might divert us from rational policies that affect faceless millions. But it’s also the kind of focused, personal image that can help in communicating the very need for those policies.”

Speaking to an audience


It is the responsibility of the speaker to listen for what the audience needs to be motivated.


“…listening begins before you even start trying to communicate. You picture an audience and think, What are they already aware of? Where should I start? How deep should I go? What are they actually eager to know? If I start too far in, will I be using concepts they don’t really understand?


“…it’s not necessary to tell the audience everything you know in one gulp. Sometimes, telling [the audience] just enough to make us want to know more is exactly the right amount.”

Speak to what is in the audience’s heads, not in yours.


Don’t start with all the details – get to the bottom line. An anesthesiologist starts with “I’m here to keep you safe and comfortable.”


  1. Try to make no more than 3 points (or one big point!)
  2. Try to explain difficult ideas in 3 different ways
  3. “try to find a subtle way to make an important point three times. It sticks a little better.”

Tips are better when backed up by experience or a vivid story (vicariously experienced).


Imagine your audience as a close friend.


When giving a talk, catch the eye of individual people and hold their gaze for a few seconds to increase your connection with the audience as if it were an individual.


Things to keep in mind when speaking to an audience:


Steve Stogatz: “What makes [the usual Math teaching] approach so ineffective is that it answers questions the student hasn’t thought to ask.”


Consider what your audience knows and what they want to know.


Uri Hasson: “Communication works only in cases when you understand something about what I’m going to say to you.”


Camerer, Loewenstein, Weber did a study and concluded that having extra knowledge is a disadvantage, because you can’t imagine what it’s like to not have that knowledge.

Storytelling and Writing


When writing, think about the reader’s state of mind, and the basic expectations that have to be met.


Thoughts will be laid out in a certain order, which affects how the reader reacts. According to George Gopen:


Karen Wynn’s study with infants and shape-faces: A red circle tries to get up a hill; a yellow triangle pushes the red circle down the hill; a blue square helps the red circle get up the hill. Almost every child reached for the blue square afterwards.


Mike Gazzaniga: “[A story is] how we best understand and retain the meaning of what our actions are in any given moment.”

Takeaway: Tell stories instead of lecturing about answers to questions that haven’t been asked.

Basic storytelling: Question, Suspense, Turning point, Resolution.


“It’s not dramatic to carry an empty glass. We have to fill it up to the brim.” [And if a drop spills, the entire village dies.]



“There’s no failing in improvisation. In improv, what some people call failure is just the next step on they way to an interesting resolution.”

Improv Games mentioned: