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Understanding Alan Alda

Actor's new book offers lessons from science and the stage

Alan Alda

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times/Redux

Alan Alda in New York, April 25, 2017

Most of us are pretty lousy at communicating, particularly when it comes to complex feelings and ideas, says Alan Alda. So he's written a book to help: If I Understood You Would I Have This Look on My Face? The actor, who won Emmys as M*A*S*H doctor Hawkeye Pierce and founded a center for communicating science at a New York university, says it's all about reading the other person, even in email or texts. We asked for his tips on how to do it right.

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Be observant

"It's about more than eye contact; it has to do with the whole person. What clues are you getting from the other person's tone of voice? Notice the little muscles on their face that they aren't even aware they're in control of. Even when you only notice a person's hair color, studies have shown that you'll score higher on empathy tests. It really makes a difference — it changes you when you're paying attention to the other person."

Use your observations for good

"With empathy, it's not that you sympathize with the other person, but that you understand how they feel. That doesn't automatically lead to good behavior — bullies use empathy. They know perfectly well how you feel and use that to torture you. But if you want to develop good teamwork, if you want to develop a good partnership with your spouse or your kid, it's hard to do without empathy."

Digital empathy works

"Mirror the way someone begins their email. If they say 'Dear Flo,' you say back 'Dear David.' If they say 'Hi, Flo,' say 'Hi, David.' Because if they say 'Dear' and you say 'Hi,' you're off on the wrong foot. Closings, too. 'All the best'? There are different closings that put you in sync with the other person. They vary over time, but I wait for the other person to make the first move in getting more intimate."

Emojis can help

"I use them when I feel it's necessary. I also have gifs that I use. If I want to celebrate, I give them a gif of fireworks going off, or roses."