Alan Alda (MJCCA 6/27) teaches us to communicate better with improv, building empathy

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 30: Alan Alda attends the World Science Festival 2017 Gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 30, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 30: Alan Alda attends the World Science Festival 2017 Gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 30, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

This was posted Wednesday, June 21, 2017 by Rodney Ho/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk

Emmy winning actor Alan Alda may seem like a natural communicator given his decades-long training as an actor and speaker, but even he has his blind spots.

In the late 1980s, he was having dental surgery and the dentist told him, "There will be some tethering." Confused, Alda asked him what he was doing exactly. The dentist became impatient and barked "Tethering, tethering!" Instead of questioning him further, Alda let the man use his scalpel and cut away.

The result: he couldn't smile anymore, a serious problem for an actor known for his charming grin. The dentist had cut out his frenum, which caused his upper lid to droop. Now he appeared to be sneering.

Alda used this story as the opening anecdote in his latest book "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?" He explores more effective ways to relate, empathize and communicate, especially for scientists to better promote their work in layman's terms and doctors to better connect with patients. The 81-year-old "M*A*S*H" legend will be at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta Tuesday, June 27 to meet fans and promote his book.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Although Alda was known as "Mr. Nice Guy" during his "M*A*S*H" days, he has carved out a fair share of bad guy roles since then. The dental snafu actually helped. "I've worked around the problem enough that you usually can't tell I have a strange smile," he said in a recent phone interview. "I've become quite good playing the sneering villain, though."

Alda first became interested in the subject of science and communication in the early 1990s hosting a PBS show called "Scientific American Frontiers" where he interviewed scientists on camera. At first, he had trouble because he would make false suppositions based on what he thought was his own base of knowledge.

"I thought I was extremely well prepared," Alda said. "I'd read their papers. I thought I could ask questions I knew the answers to. The reality is I didn't understand their work well enough. And what's the point of asking a question you supposedly already know the answer to? It comes off feeling canned."

Alda later came up with an idea to help engineering students at USC better communicate their work using improvisational exercises he did in acting classes. He had them first make brief presentations on their research. Most were dull and jargon filled.

He then had the students do three hours of improv games like having individuals create objects out of thin air like charades and have others wordlessly join in to build off what the first person was doing. These exercises forced people to observe and relate to each other. Afterwards, they did their presentations again and almost all of them came out clearer and more confident.

Later, Stony Brook University in New York helped the actor line up a grant to create a curriculum and turn this into a regular workshop for students. By 2013, Stony Brook wanted to name a school after him focused exclusively on science communication. He wasn't immediately on board.

"I don't need my name on places," Alda said. "I just want the work to be good. I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to hinder the work. They thought it would help draw attention to it and help with fundraising." So he said yes.

The school over four years has trained more than 8,000 medical professionals and scientists through workshops. Other universities have become inspired and gotten certified to launch programs of their own worldwide.

Sadly, his efforts are fighting against the tides of technology. Face-to-face communication is becoming less common in this day and age of smartphones, texting and Snapchatting. "Connecting with other people feels good when you do it," Alda said. "For some reason, we do it less and less. We get drawn into solitude or faux companionship with our devices. We lose touch with the ability to reach each other's emotions."

An AV Club critic of his book  Ryan Vlastelica thought Alda didn't delve enough into the negative side of empathy - or feeling other people's emotions. In other words, charismatic people with evil intentions can easily manipulate others. "I thought I covered it," he said. "You can use empathy compassionately or use it aggressively or in a hostile way. That wasn't the primary purpose of this book. That could be another book altogether."

Alda chose not to get into how a man like Pres. Donald Trump was able to use his communication skills on the dais to win constituents to his side. "He clearly has an ability to read a crowd," Alda said. "That is a kind of empathy. He uses it as he chooses. There are differing opinions whether he's doing good with his empathy. It's interesting how people read into my chapter on dark empathy. I tried to stay away from politics in the narrow sense in the book. In the broader sense, it's clear we live in a divided country. I believe we all need to develop a better ability to connect with one another and listen to one another."


Alan Alda

7:30 p.m., Tuesday

$33 for members, $37 for non members (includes copy of his new book)

Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta

5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody

NOTE: Alda will not be signing books on site. All purchased books will be pre-signed

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