If I Understood You Would I Have This Look on My Face?
by Alan Alda
For those of you who remember MASH – the movie and the TV series, Alan Alda was one of its main stars. Lately he has become really interested in improving personal communication, and in particular he believes that theatre skills – especially improvisation – can make a dramatic improvement in this area, particularly in creating empathy. Alda offers detailed but easy-to-understand techniques, which clearly can be taken from rehearsal rooms into classrooms, and from acting on stage to giving a powerful presentation performance.
The book is crisply written and easy to read, with a refreshing modesty and no ‘name dropping’! And, as you’d expect from his screen persona, he has a nice turn of phrase, and is a good story teller. Alda is a man on a crusade, having discovered – almost as a ‘light bulb moment’ that what works in drama also works in life. Above all, he is a fan of ‘learning through experience’ rather than through ‘lecture-based learning’.
Understanding the impact of improvisation and stagecraft, and how to use it through numerous techniques, is the main focus of the book. His ideas, clearly explained, with supporting research and detailed examples, may encourage you to adopt some of the techniques described in working with anyone who wants (or you want) to improve personal verbal communication.
& here are the key takeaways...
You actors think relating is the icing on the cake.
Well it isn’t.
It’s the cake.”
Metaphors and storytelling
Alda is excellent at creating metaphors that help explain, engage and aid understanding: some examples, and resulting in some memorable phrases. The first quote above talks about ‘the grit in the gears’; other examples: “I wondered: what if scientists could be helped to shed this magnetic attraction to the cold North Pole of jargon”; in managing ‘the head’ and ‘the heart’ he says: “these two aspects of one person’s mind bat their arguments back and forth as if playing a shuttlecock, with neither wanting to lose the point”. And he gives credit to others in this regard. He credits Brian Greene with this metaphor, when asked to explain the notion of a particle: “If you cut a loaf of bread in half, then take one of the halves and cut that in half, and keep doing that, eventually you’ll get down to the smallest bit possible. That’s a particle.”
As you might expect, Alda is rich in improvisation exercises, and shares them liberally throughout the book. Examples include mirroring (including shared mirroring, where neither in the pair is leading); contagious listening; yes and; gibberish, tapping, and passing a feeling.
Empathy as fluid, unpredictable, responsive and experienced
Alda’s main focus is on understanding, justifying and building empathy. He fundamentally believes this can only be understood and developed through experience: the ability (note: ability) to be ‘in synch’ with another person has to be developed in the moments of social interaction, and not through reading a book. And that’s mainly because it is a fluid, not static, skill; an unpredictable, rather than a predictable skill; and a responsive, not proactive, skill. “If I’m trying to explain something and you don’t follow me, it’s not simply your job to catch up. It’s my job to slow down.”
It’s being so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you’re observing them.
The power of improvisation in building teams
Many – perhaps most – of Alda’s improvisation techniques take place in groups, and to be effective, all members of the group have to fully contribute for the end product to be effective. A terrific example of this is that the group, acting as a team, has to build something imaginary, in silence. So someone starts, usually using their hands; the rest observe, and gradually ‘something’ that has a shared form and meaning, is built – with structure, weight, movement – all in the collective mind’s eye of the group. In every case Alda mentions, a random set of individuals – people who have not met, let alone not worked together, become a convincing and happy team.
Let experience and democracy rather than expertise and seniority lead…
For Alda, nothing beats experience, which is of course at the heart of improvisation, which involves spontaneous ‘doing’ and ‘talking’. There’s no script, and of course, since the tasks set by Alda are always ‘unusual’, there is no one who’s an expert in the task set. So everyone is equal (which is of course rare in any organisational setting, which relies heavily on, and deference to, expertise). In every improvisation, no one is an expert, and everyone is operating on and from a level playing field. The experience provides the route to learning, rather than the other way round. As Alda says, when referring to how people say things, as well as what they say: “tone is produced less by a decision to sound a certain way and more by our relationship with the other way”. Late in the book Alda offers this telling story: “There’s a stretch of road I’ve driven down many times where I used to ignore the speed limit sign. One afternoon I got a speeding ticket and I never ignored the speed limit again. The sign was instruction: the ticket was the experience”
As the above example exemplifies, building personal and team confidence through improvisation is a real challenge to prevailing cultures – in both how we train communication competence, and perhaps more critically, challenging formal, trainable expertise and seniority as the basis for ‘results’
The book sparkles with innovation and creativity, and more excitingly, how people both respond positively to the experience, and develop skills that are perhaps more positive and embedded than those that are attempted to be developed through more traditional means.
Contributions on management
Though the main theme is communication, and in particular empathy, Alda offers insights into other skills developed through improvisation that are also helpful: among his mini-headings are leadership, listening, self-regulation, selling, and emotion
Not being truly engaged with the people we’re trying to communicate with, and then suffering the snags of misunderstanding, is the grit in the gears of daily life.
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