A distinguished actor and communication expert shows how to avoid “the snags of misunderstanding” that plague verbal interactions between human beings.
When Alda (Things I Overhead While Talking to Myself, 2007, etc.) first began hosting the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers in 1993, he had no idea how much the job would change his life. In the 20 years that followed, he developed an enduring fascination with “trying to figure out what makes communication work.” As a TV show host who interviewed scientists and engineers, Alda became painfully aware of his own shortcomings as a communicator and how his background as an actor could help him improve. In the first section of the book, he discusses how effective communication requires listening with ears, eyes, and feelings wide open. Drawing from research, interactions with science professionals, and his work as an actor, Alda reveals how individuals who aren’t “naturally good” communicators can learn to become more adept by practicing their overall relating skills. He describes activities like the “mirror exercise,” in which partners observe and mimic each other’s actions and speech. Not only do people learn how to focus on each other, but they also “strengthen cohesion and promote cooperation” in groups. In the second section, Alda, who founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, points out the importance of empathy in communication. He discusses, among others, an exercise that forced him to name the feelings he saw others express. Raising awareness of emotion increases empathy levels, which can trigger the release of oxytocin, the feel-good “love hormone.” By adding emotion to communication, using storytelling, avoiding jargon, and eliminating the assumption that others share the same knowledge base, message senders can forge closer bonds with recipients. The book’s major strength comes from Alda’s choice to take an interprofessional approach and avoid offering prescriptive methods to enhance interpersonal understanding. As he writes, communication “is a dance we learn by trusting ourselves to take the leap, not by mechanically following a set of rules.”
A sharp and informative guide to communication.