Make no mistake, I’m a huge fan of Alan Alda. M*A*S*H has been a staple in my family since I was a kid and my husband and I still continue to enjoy it immensely. The day when Alan Alda is no longer with us (hopefully long into the future,) it will feel like losing a relative.
So when I discovered that he had a podcast on communication (thoroughly enjoyable, check it out on iTunes and other platforms) and a book on the subject (published in 2017) I decided to check it out.
Many of us know that after 11 seasons of M*A*S*H, Alan Alda also went on to host Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for another 11 years. This last show led him to notice a common skill often missing from the scientific community–effective communication.
After speaking with university deans, a lobbyist friend, and various others with a shared vision, the Alda Center for Communicating Science was born at Stony Brook University in New York. It’s been his passion ever since.
In his book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Alda talks about the evolution of the center and its work. This hearkens back to his early days as a theater actor, taking classes to hone his craft and doing acting exercises. These exercises promoted both trust and unity among the actors, which resulted in a better performance.
Trust and unity. These are key. By using acting exercises and other theater games, the Alda Center teaches science students at all levels and future professions on how to communicate better. Much of the book is dedicated to the particulars of the exercises, which was a bit tedious at times, and the practical outcomes in either the real or experimental worlds.
Communication is discussed within various categories of the scientific community: labs, research, medical and dental, as well as within business, marriage/partnerships, and even with autistic children. I preferred these sections more that the descriptions of the exercises, which almost seem better suited for a supplemental workbook.
However, all of it was interesting. The heart vs the head, the importance of reading body language, and the most necessary trait in effective communication–empathy. And, while I found myself skimming over the various theater games and exercises, the core skills and feelings we need to develop and maintain, now more than ever, were both helpful and poignant. A powerful reminder that what every human really wants is to be heard.