- On October 17, 2018
“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.”
Alan Alda wrote that in his charming book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. In it, the actor discusses why empathy is key to communication—writing included—that engages audiences.
An empathetic person understands what others are thinking, feeling, and expecting to hear. In business, when an empathic person delivers information, her communication always includes bottom line implications for what that information means to the people she’s addressing. Consider the CEO who’s writing employees about a major shift in the company’s business strategy. She must anticipate her employees’ questions and concerns and address what that shift means for them and their jobs. That is what they’re expecting to hear. If she doesn’t, the people on the receiving end are less likely to fully absorb the information and participate in the company’s new direction.
Alda opens his book with an epiphany that led him to discover the relationship between empathy and engagement. He was having dental work that required several appointments to complete. During that time, he was also filming a movie in which his character had to do a lot of smiling. But he couldn’t form a smile, only a sneer. Alarmed, Alda called the dentist and told him he made a living with his face and he needed one that could smile (his words).
The dentist, it turned out, hadn’t explained that until the multi-step procedure was complete, the actor would not be able to smile. That was information Alda had rightly expected—and deserved—to hear at the outset.
The dentist had no empathy. Alda eventually got his smile back—and, I presume, another dentist.
Alan Alda helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York to help scientists better explain their work.