Review of Alan Alda’s If I Understood You

ralph_anneThanks to Anne Ralph, Clinical Professor of Law at the Ohio State University, Michael E. Moritz College of Law, for this guest post reviewing Alan Alda’s new book on listening, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? 

Any lawyer who’s misunderstood (or been misunderstood by) a client, opposing counsel, or judge knows that failed communication can thwart even the best legal knowledge and skills. In If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, Alan Alda makes the case for an intentional focus on effective communication by highlighting the very real costs of failed communication: “[D]isengagement from the person we hope will understand us” [xvi]. This disengagement can “stand in the way of all kinds of happiness and success” [xvi], including, I think Alda would agree, success in the practice of law.

In Alda’s book, lawyers will find useful insights related to listening. Granted, most of Alda’s case studies and anecdotes center on how scientists communicate their knowledge—which makes sense given that Alda hosted the TV series Scientific American Frontiers for eleven years and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. But Alda’s friendly writing voice and skill at sharing complex concepts in simple, memorable terms make the book valuable for anyone interested in improving their communication skills.

The book maps Alda’s own personal journey to improve his communication. Alda describes his communication “blunders” when he began hosting Scientific American Frontiers: He assumed he knew more than he actually did, which offended a scientist he was interviewing; he repeatedly ignored the scientist’s obvious body language showing discomfort; and finally, as he barreled along through an interview, he asked a set script of questions instead of questions that grew out of what the scientist was sharing. In short, Alda writes, “I wasn’t really listening to him” [6]. In this list of blunders, lawyers might recognize their own experiences with awkward client interviews, ineffective depositions, or unsuccessful negotiations with opposing counsel.

Alda, a prolific actor and director whose deep insights into human nature are apparent on every page, was disappointed with himself for being so disconnected in the interview. Alda’s acting experience, including his improv training, had taught him to connect to other actors in a deep and immediate sense, creating spontaneous responses between people. As a result, he had expected himself to be naturally better at listening and reacting to his interview partner.

Thus began his quest to better understand the science of communicating–or, as Alda puts it, borrowing a term from director Mike Nichols: “relating.” Relating, as Alda defines it, means “observing” another person with such awareness that “everything about them affect[s] 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” [10].

When Alda consciously used his improv training in his conversations with scientists, he found his way to “responsive listening,” the key first step in relating and a concept that roughly translates to being open to being changed by the other person in the conversation.

The willingness to be changed required him to use both his natural curiosity and an awareness of his own ignorance. It turned out that conversations were hampered when Alda made assumptions about the scientists’ work based on his own limited knowledge—those assumptions led him to ask limiting questions, which reduced the value of the information the scientists provided. But when Alda engaged in the kind of responsive listening that his improv work prepared him to do, the effect was contagious, leading the scientists to become more responsive as well. Alda described it as being “drawn into a kind of dance”[12]: Responsive listening made conversations dynamic because both participants in the conversation were constantly attuned to each other, instead of just waiting for each other to finish talking.

Naturally, Alda wondered if he had stumbled onto something big: would improv training help scientists better communicate complex concepts to the non-scientist world?

The answer is yes, as the rest of the book chronicles. Alda explores how people can develop their skill in relating, leading to better communication. As it turns out, both scientific studies of communication and his personal work with improv and acting bear out the idea that responsive listening is an essential building block in communicating anything to an audience.

For instance, Alda describes taking engineering students through of a series of improv exercises, which teach an ultimate lesson: “The person who’s communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows him” [30]. In other words, true communication is inseparable from responsive listening and observing: “Communication doesn’t take place because you tell somebody something. It takes place when you observe them closely and track their ability to follow you” [17]. After these exercises, every engineering student’s delivery of a scientific talk improved. Again, Alda uses scientists and doctors in his stories, but the lessons can apply equally well to lawyers and clients or to lawyers and their other audiences.

For lawyers who want to better engage in responsive listening, this true connection that fosters communication, Alda identifies two key capacities:

  • empathy (which Alda describes as an emotional understanding of what the other person is feeling) and
  • Theory of Mind (which he describes as a rational understanding of what another person is thinking).

Both these capacities can be learned, and the book describes how teaching these skills to doctors leads to better outcomes for patients—and, interestingly, even to lower rates of medical malpractice lawsuits.

Because not everyone has access to the improv training or Theory-of-Mind courses the book describes, this blog’s readers might find Alda’s personal experiments at improving his empathy and theory of mind interesting and compelling. Alda participated in some small studies that aimed to increase empathy through practices he incorporated into his everyday life. For instance, he practiced reading the faces of people he encountered every day—from family members to passers-by on the street to cab drivers—trying to observe what they were feeling. He also practiced silently naming the emotions he observed. The results of these small studies suggest that these interventions have the intended effect of increasing empathy, and Alda invites readers to try these themselves. (In addition to describing how these exercises can improve one’s capacity for responsive listening, Alda also covers the role that increased empathy and awareness of Theory of Mind play in effective writing and in making a message memorable.)

I encourage lawyers to read the book—its friendly tone and use of stories makes the content memorable and accessible. Until you do read the book, consider the following as big takeaways for lawyers’ listening:

Listening is an essential part, a necessary precondition, of communicating well. Effective listening requires close attention to another person, thoughtful observation not only of words but of body language, withholding jumping to conclusions, and curiosity.

Thanks again to OSU’s Anne Ralph. She also writes about narrative as it is shaped (distorted?) by the rules of civil procedure. See more of Anne’s legal scholarship here:



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