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

My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating

by Alan Alda

Hardcover, 213 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $28 |


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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

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The actor and founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science traces his personal quest to understand how to relate and communicate better, from practicing empathy and using improv games to storytelling and developing better intuitive skills.

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Alan Alda's Experiment: Helping Scientists Learn To Talk To The Rest Of Us

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?

Chapter 1

Relating: It’s the Cake

A couple of decades ago, a letter came in the mail that set me on a path that would not only bring me to a deeper understanding of that day with the dentist, but would actually change the direction of my life.

The letter was from a television producer, asking if I would be interested in hosting a show on PBS called Scientific American Frontiers. I was in love with science and had read every issue of the magazine Scientific American since I was a young man. It had been my only education in the subject. I was so excited I had to read the invitation twice. Scientific American! My alma mater! This would be a chance to actually learn from scientists themselves.

After a few minutes, though, I realized that the producers were probably only looking for someone well known to appear at the beginning of the show to introduce that week’s topic and then disappear to read an off-camera narration. That sounded like a lot less fun than talking to scientists, so I asked them if, instead, I could interview the scientists on camera. I knew if we’d be shooting interviews I’d spend the whole day with them—not just on camera but during the hours of setting up, having lunch, and wandering around their labs. I’d have a chance to learn something.

There was one minor hitch. I didn’t have much experience interviewing anybody, let alone scientists, so if the producers agreed, they’d be taking something of a chance on me.

I was, however, blissfully confident. I had taken over as guest host on talk shows a few times, but more than that, I thought that one of the tools of my profession ought to help: the ability to listen and react. Plus, I had been trained in improvisation, a particular kind of theater training—games and exercises that enable you to open up to another person, to tune in to them, to engage with them in a dance of ideas and feelings, and to go anywhere it takes you, together.

I’m sure the producers of Scientific American Frontiers weren’t as confident of all this as I was, but they decided to take a chance on me. We began shooting the series in 1993.

The first story we shot featured racing cars powered only by solar energy. We went out to the California State University, Los Angeles, and set up in a workshop where a scientist was working on a large solar panel. This would be my first actual science interview. John Angier, one of the producers, called me over and nodded in the direction of the scientist. Peter Hoving, the cameraman, lifted his camera and started rolling.

As I entered the room, I didn’t realize that this would be the beginning of more than twenty years of trying to figure out what makes communication work, getting beyond the impoverished ways of the barking dentist, looking for empathy and a deeper kind of listening in almost every part of my life. This moment would begin it all. But not only didn’t I realize this, I was vaguely aware that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I hesitated for a moment.

John Angier nodded toward the scientist again and, with just a slight air of Well, this is what you wanted, he said, “Go on. Go in there and start talking.”

I walked over to the scientist, smiled confidently—and immediately made three huge blunders.

Listening with Eyes, Ears, and Feelings

My first blunder was assuming that I knew more than I did.

After a brief hello and a quick glance at his solar panel, I told the scientist how amazing it was that he had put all this together just using parts off the shelf. I saw his face tighten a little. “They’re not off the shelf,” he said, slightly offended. “We had to make a lot of them.” I saw the anxiety in his face, but I didn’t respond to it. I experienced a little anxiety of my own, but I ignored both his and mine. Instead, I made the next blunder with my body.

I reached out to the solar panel and laid my hand on it, assuming a bit of unearned familiarity. I saw something happen to his face again, but I kept going. Not content with touching the panel, I gave the thing an affectionate pat. “Amazing,” I said, hoping that time would pass more comfortably if I showed a measure of awe.

“Please don’t touch the panel,” he said. “You could ruin it.” The distress in his face was now very clear to me. I had seen it earlier, but somehow I had ignored it. I hadn’t been listening with my eyes.

I lurched through a couple of questions about solar panels, but the interview was lame and halting. I was well into my third blunder: Just as I hadn’t been really relating to him in not responding to the look on his face, none of my responses grew out of what he was telling me. I wasn’t really listening to him when he answered my questions.

In fact, I hadn’t been listening in three different ways. When I’d told him he had made the panel with parts off the shelf, I was paying more attention to my own assumptions than I was to him. When I didn’t read his face, I wasn’t listening to his body language. And when my questions didn’t spring from what he was saying, I was disconnected from him. I was alone. How could the conversation have been anything but strained when I had shut myself up in my own head?

I was a little downcast by the experience. Where was the improvisational ability to listen and react that I knew how to do onstage, that I had been trained in and was so proud of? I cherished my experiences in improvising with other actors. Why wasn’t I doing it now?


Improvising on the stage is usually thought of as creating funny sketches on the spot, with no preparation. Most improvisation that audiences are exposed to is comedy improv, and that was my first experience with improvisation.

One summer in my early twenties, I was performing in a cabaret show, sunk in the basement of a hotel in Hyannis Port. The first act of our show was a set of sketches we had created in rehearsal through improvisation. There was no writing of funny lines; it was all developed through the spontaneous interactions of the actors. The only preparation beforehand was thinking about characters we could play, and figuring out the quirks they had that could be relied on no matter what the other actor tossed our way. We worked these sketches over many times in rehearsal, and, although they were derived through improvisation, we knew we had these surefire set pieces for the first half of the show.

The second half was much scarier.

Before the intermission, I would ask the audience to give us words or headlines from the news. Then we’d take this list of minimal prompts backstage, and for fifteen furious minutes we’d toss ideas back and forth.

“They gave us the word taxes,” I might say to Honey Shepherd (who went on, decades later, to play Carmela’s mother on The Sopranos). “How about if you do your Nice Old Lady being audited for her tax return?” Her character was sweet, reasonable, and totally antiwar.

When she got out on stage, if the tax auditor asked her why she hadn’t paid her taxes, Honey’s Nice Old Lady could be relied on to say something like “I don’t want to buy a bomb.” Which would lead to a tangled, logically illogical dialogue.

As we brainstormed the most minimal of premises for sketches, we had no idea what we would actually do or say. We didn’t know where a sketch would go or how it would end. Whoever was offstage during a scene would have their hand on the light switch, and when something funny happened that sounded like a concluding moment, they’d flip the switch and we’d have the punctuation of a blackout.

In an improvised press conference, I would take on the persona of President John Kennedy, answering questions from journalists in the audience who had asked the same questions of the real John Kennedy in the same hotel that morning. His answers to their questions hadn’t made it into the newspapers yet, so I was flying completely blind.

It was easy to worry that we would fail and flame out in front of the audience.

As opening night approached, we felt a thrill that must be like the thrill that runs through a person’s tingling body just before he jumps off a bridge.

As scary as this kind of improvising was, there was excitement in not knowing what we would suddenly be doing during a show. It was exhilarating, but we were limited by two things: We had to be funny, and we had little or no training in improv. We were relying mainly on sheer guts.

A year or two later, though, I was introduced to a completely different form of improvising.

I was invited to join a workshop conducted by Paul Sills, who had founded Second City, the phenomenally successful improv company. We met twice a week on the Second City stage in downtown New York City. It was the same stage where skilled comedy improvisers would perform nightly, but in these sessions Paul introduced us to a completely different kind of work.

His mother, Viola Spolin, had done groundbreaking work in creating a kind of improvisation training that was rigorous and exacting, and that slowly built in actors the ability to connect with one another spontaneously. Comedy was not the objective. Cleverness and joke making were forbidden. Something else, something much more fundamental to theater, was being explored: a kind of relating that could lead to deeper, more affecting performances.

At each session, Paul would open Viola Spolin’s book, Improvisation for the Theater, and lead us through games and exercises that little by little transformed us. The games connected each of us to the other players in a dynamic way. What one player did was immediately sensed and responded to by the other player. And that, in turn, created a spontaneous response in the first player. It was true relating and responsive listening, which, I’ve come to realize, is necessary on the stage and in life as well.

After six months, I felt that these improv sessions had changed me both as an actor and as a person.

But here I was now in this interview about solar panels, and it wasn’t working. I was talking to a scientist who could give me the knowledge I craved—and I wasn’t listening.

Why? I had spent my whole life on the stage listening to the other actors. Or trying to. But it seemed to be something I constantly had to relearn.

When I started out as an actor, I had the vague awareness that listening had something to do with relating to the other person, although relating was a word with a mysterious ring to it. I heard it often from directors and had seen it repeatedly in books by the Russian acting gurus—Stanislavski, Boleslavski, and one or two other avskis. But I was still hazy about what relating actually entailed. It obviously had to do with making some kind of contact with another person. I drew the natural conclusion that it meant putting myself in the other person’s face. So when I was asked to relate more, I would tilt over in their general direction, in the manner of an errant telephone pole. But this wasn’t actually relating; it was just leaning over. If the director asked for even more relating, I would slump my shoulders and position my nose even closer to the other actor’s. I would be hunched over like the ape in the evolution cartoon, just before he straightens up and walks like a human. It didn’t make directors sigh in admiration.

Once, a long time ago, Mike Nichols was directing Barbara Harris and me in a rehearsal for the Broadway musical The Apple Tree. He asked us both several times to relate better—although he seemed to be looking more in my direction than in hers. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore. “You kids think relating is the icing on the cake,” he said. “It isn’t. It’s the cake.”

So, what is it? What’s relating? What’s the cake? It took me years to be able to put it roughly into words.

It’s being so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you’re observing them. It’s letting everything about them 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.

Responsive Listening

There’s a body of scientific literature on responsive listening, but I came to understand it in a personal way through my work. In acting, this kind of relating is fundamental. You don’t say your next line simply because it’s in the script. You say it because the other person has behaved in a way that makes you say it. Relating to them allows them to have an effect on you—to change you, in way. And that’s why you respond the way you do.

For an actor, it’s the difference between planning how you’re going to behave, which looks like acting, and finding your performance in the other person’s eyes, which makes you respond to one another—and which looks like life.

But, with all that behind me, here I was supposedly in conversation with the solar panel scientist, and I wasn’t relating to him. Slowly, it was beginning to dawn on me: It’s not just in acting that genuine relating has to take place—real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.

Listening and Willing to Be Changed

I so loved this idea—that on the stage the other actor has to be able to affect you if a scene is to take place—that I came to the conclusion that, even in life, unless I’m responding with my whole self—unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you—I’m probably not really listening. But if I do listen—openly, naïvely, and innocently—there’s a chance, possibly the only chance, that a true dialogue and real communication will take place between us.

This was the first step in understanding what had to take place before doctors (and dentists) could talk with their patients; before people in business could relate to their customers, parents could advise their children, and couples could work together—with far fewer misunderstandings and hard feelings. At first, though, I was concentrating on helping scientists get their story out in the most human-sounding way.

Once I began to relearn listening as a human interaction, and not just an acting technique, I could go into each interview for Scientific American Frontiers without a set of questions. It wasn’t really an interview anymore. It was a conversation.