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Review: Smithsonian Associates with Actor Alan Alda: ‘The Art and Science of Communicating’

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Thursday night on a beautiful Spring evening, Alan Alda fans descended upon the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to hear him speak about his passion…communication! The event, during which he shared the communication techniques described in his  new book: If I Understood You, Would I have this Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, was sold out and the crowd enthusiastic.

Alan Alda. Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian Associates.

Alda is a highly lauded actor from the movies Aviator, Bridge of Spies, and his TV iconic role on M.A.S.H. He has won seven Emmy Awards and received three Tony nominations. However, this evening wasn’t about his acting experiences, but his interest in helping scientists better communicate with others. Alda hosts PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers” and even established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Having lived a full life, At age 81 he is still acting and it seems like he might never slow down.

Instead of a typical Q&A, Alda stood the whole time and basically gave a collegiate lecture on communication. It was a different format than I had seen before with celebrity guests.

Alda described how communicating with scientists helped him develop ways to explain complex scientific ideas that everyone could understand. He also found ways to help scientists better relate and communicate with empathy to get better results like having a patient following “doctor’s orders” more likely.

Moving easily across the stage in an elegant suit, Alda shared interesting stories about communicating. He had the crowd perform an experiment by pairing up. One person would act like the teenager asking to have her or his allowance increased threefold. Alda asked how many of the “moms” gave in to the request to increase the allowance. After the first go around, he had the “teenagers” close their eyes then answer three things: color of the other person’s hair, eyes and shirt. Alda had the “teenager” audience raise their hands based on how much they remembered. The second go around, performing the same scenario, saw that more “moms” said yes to the allowance request. Alda’s point was how paying attention to others closely and mirroring them tends to increase our chances of making things happen.

Alda believes an empathetic person isn’t necessarily a good person. Bullies use empathy to know how to hurt people. Overall empathetic listening, when used for good, can ensure the receiver understands the message and knows you care and will more likely act in accordance to the message.

Alda did a great job sharing personal stories of empathy. Like the time he was in a remote country and an empathetic doctor saved his life by cutting out part of his dying colon. During the same emergency, the medic who was not tuned into his medical distress did not do a good job with empathy. I enjoyed the several interactive games we did to learn about communicating like telling a good story to help people understand what is being said, mirroring body language and looking people in the face when talking with them.

Alan Alda gave a very compelling and thought-provoking talk, but if you were looking to hear about his experiences on M.A.S.H. this wasn’t it!

The Smithsonian Associates Actor Alan Alda: The Art and Science of Communicating was a one-time performance on May 8th, 2017, at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. For tickets to future events, call (202) 633-3030, or purchase them online.

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