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

Book Notes

I really loved this book. I mean, I was expecting to like it, but I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Probably helps that Alan Alda was my favorite actor when I was growing up. God, I hope he doesn't Kevin Spacey that opinion. Anyway.

This book was about Alda's journey into his improving scientific communication with "the masses" (my word, not his). He's been excited about science, and wanted to convey that enthusiasm. Here's how, including the scientific basis for some of the techniques he used. Here's how, including how improv can help one become a better communicator. Here's how, including practicing empathy. it was just such a great book.

I wish I had read it with the Caltech Book Club, mostly so that I would have someone to talk with about this book. I know that Tech offers improv classes, and the Book Club organized an online class for the members to take. I love the idea of an improv class, while being simultaneously overwhelmingly nervous about them. I can talk tech to a room of 1500 people, but improv with a group of 10 people? YIKES!

I recommend the book. If you're in science and/or tech and want to improve your communication skills, I strongly recommend this book. Good stuff.

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.
Page 10

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.
Page 10

Ignorance was my ally as long as it was backed up by curiosity. Ignorance without curiosity is not so good, but with curiosity it was the clear water through which I could see the coins at the bottom of the fountain.
Page 11

His letter has come to be known as Jefferson’s dialogue between Head and Heart.
Page 22

In fact, it’s not until about the age of four or five that it even occurs to children that deception is possible. There’s no point in lying if everybody knows what you’re thinking!
Page 28

I coach from the side and explain that it’s his responsibility to help the mirror, his partner, keep up with him. This is the students’ first glimmer of the basic idea: The person who’s communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows him.
Page 30

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.
Page 30

In other studies, simply tapping in sync, like tapping on a table, produced the same results. After they had spent some time tapping in sync, the subjects paid more attention to the good of the group, and they made fewer selfish choices.
Page 33

One thing she’ll learn from this is that there are many different ways to express the same thought, depending on whom you’re talking with.
Page 40

What could predict it, though, were three factors: the ability of the members of the group to freely take part in discussions, members’ scores on a standardized test of empathy, and, surprisingly, the presence of women in the group.
Page 56

If you get the sense that the rest of the group is aware of your feelings and won’t punish you for speaking up, you might be more inclined to offer an idea.
Page 57

Whether face-to-face or online, they reported, “some teams consistently worked smarter than others.” And the reasons they worked smarter were the same: They had “members who communicated a lot, participated equally, and possessed good emotion-reading skills.”
Page 57

He struck a chord when he wrote about the pitfalls of assuming students are totally responsible for their own motivation, noting that “this can lead researchers to blame group members for their lack of motivation.” Instead, he feels that it’s up to the leader of the group to motivate the students, or else things can break down. This is the very thing that happens in the mirror exercise when the leader doesn’t take responsibility for helping the other person to follow. They lose the connection that could keep them in sync. It happens when a teacher blames the student or a speaker blames the audience for not understanding what they have to say.
Page 58

The responsibility really belongs to the person speaking, not the person listening.
Page 59

“The goal,” he was saying, “is to provide people with the conditions that enhance their natural self-motivated behavior.”
Page 59

Some of my limited experience as a boss has included the unpleasant task of firing people who, it suddenly turned out, were wrong for the job—that remarkable transformation where someone you thought was perfect has turned into a werewolf. They haven’t actually become something else, of course. They’re the same perfectly fine people they were months earlier. But with all my supposed sensitivity and mind-reading ability, I hadn’t picked up on who they really were when I hired them.
Page 70

I could have avoided all the mind reading I needed in firing them humanely if I had been better at it when I was hiring them.
Page 70

He seems aware that good communication is the responsibility of the person delivering the information, not the person receiving
Page 73

we teach scientists that it’s not necessary to tell the audience everything you know in one gulp. Sometimes, telling us just enough to make us want to know more is exactly the right amount. We gag on force-feeding.
Page 73

Leek says, “It’s people’s nature where if they don’t understand something, they tend to say, ‘No.’
Page 73

When I can’t open a hard plastic “clamshell” container with scissors or a knife, or even a hammer, I wonder, Has the president of the company ever personally tried to open this thing?
Page 74

Social awareness became one of the key attributes of emotional intelligence as described in the work of Daniel Goleman. Goleman has refined the notion of social awareness to three separate steps: first, having an instantaneous, primal awareness of another’s inner state (empathy); then, grasping their feelings and thoughts (Theory of Mind); and, finally, understanding—or, as he says, “getting complicated social situations.” Goleman has described social awareness as “the ability to identify a client’s or customer’s often unstated needs and concerns and then match them to products or services.” He adds that “this empathic strategy distinguishes star sales performers from average ones.”
Page 76

You’re vulnerable when you laugh. You let the other person in.
Page 82

What’s the story? Where are you in the story?…
Page 83

He asks himself the same kind of questions we suggest our scientists ask: “Who is receiving it? Who are you? Why are you listening to this? Why would you care? Should you care?… I think,”
Page 83

I asked them to make imaginary objects out of space and pass them around in a circle, just as I would if I were working with scientists. Next, they tossed balls made of nothing to one another, but the kids had to make sure the ball they caught was the same size and weight as the one that was thrown to them. As always, the better they got at that, the more you believed you could see the ball passing from one person to another. The kids were delighted to see imaginary objects coming into existence simply because they were observing one another and responding—making contact. Then I asked them to toss not a ball, but an emotion around the circle. That was hard to grasp at first. It was confusing enough to toss around a ball that didn’t really exist; now I was asking them to pass around a feeling. To get them started, I made a sound and a gesture that I hoped conveyed a sense of joy and tossed it to the girl standing next to me. Her job was to catch it, the same way she had caught the imaginary ball, then mimic the emotion and pass it on to someone else. The emotion made its way around the circle, and soon the natural expressiveness of musicians took over and they were tossing passions to one another.
Page 84

You accept what you get from the other person, and then let it grow into something else. You keep moving things forward.
Page 86

Life, of course, is an improvisation. You don’t know what’s coming next.
Page 87

Self-regulation has to take place: You know what the other person is going through because you recognize their emotion in yourself, but you don’t have to act out that emotion. You take responsibility for regulating your own feelings.
Page 93

Training in improv and acting in general both lead to improvement on standardized tests designed to measure a person’s ability to connect with the state of mind of another person.
Page 94

The Three Rules of Three 1. When I talk to an audience, I try to make no more than three points. (They can’t remember more than three, and neither can I.) In fact, restricting myself to one big point is even better. But three is the limit. 2. I try to explain difficult ideas three different ways. Some people can’t understand something the first couple of ways I say it, but can if I say it another way. This lets them triangulate their way to understanding. 3. I try to find a subtle way to make an important point three times. It sticks a little better. But even
Page 98

I stopped practicing empathy for a while; it was exhausting.
Page 105

I began to look at people’s faces not only to guess what they were feeling, but to actually name it. I would mentally attach a word to what I thought was their emotion. Labeling it meant that I wasn’t just observing them; I was making a conscious effort to settle on the exact word that described what I saw.
Page 105

But what emotion are they going through? Identifying it doesn’t make me more sympathetic, but it does give me a chance to respond more appropriately. It kind of heads off impatience.
Page 106

He briefly outlined a method where he could give people an app for their smartphones that they could tap every time they read someone’s emotion and named it. They could do this for a week, and he could use standardized tools for testing empathy before and after a run. He thought for a moment and said, “I’d love to do that study.”
Page 107

In fact, I’d be happy to report on a failure, I thought. I have a lot of respect for failed experiments. It’s how scientists know what doesn’t work. I wish more so-called failures in research got attention. It would save others from going down the same dead-end alleys. It could be helpful to report on this if it didn’t pan out.
Page 108

He reminded me that the study was still going on and told me he was being very careful about not committing the error of peeking at the results before all the data were in.
Page 111

Matt mentioned that the harder it is for someone to read their own emotions, the harder it is for them to read the emotions of others. Maybe I should have been working on becoming better aware of my own emotions.
Page 112

Reading the Mind in the Eyes test.
Page 118

The first time I took it, I scored 33 out of 36. This time I got 36 out of 36. This proves nothing at all, of course, and ranks on a scale of reliable evidence just above wishing. But I was delighted anyway.
Page 123

Even when we think of empathy as a tool for good, it might not be a good idea to oversell its strengths, and we should remember that there will always be people who will use it against others for their own benefit.
Page 128

For Bloom, empathy is harder to achieve than we realize, and it doesn’t lead to moral behavior or good policy as much as rationality does.
Page 128

There are times we know what the rational action should be, but don’t take it until we consider what the other person is feeling. I know, in my own life, I sometimes respond to a question with an answer that isn’t really helpful.
Page 131

George Gopen wrote with Judith Swan, called “The Science of Scientific Writing,”
Page 134

As Gopen says, “Readers expect [a sentence] to be a story about whoever shows up first.”
Page 135

Richard Feynman told the story of a boy who taunted him when he was young, challenging him to name a bird they’d just seen. When he couldn’t, the boy said, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But his father already had taught him something that was more important than the name of a thing. He’d said to him, “See that bird? It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” Feynman could tell his father had made up the name. Then he started to give Richard fictitious names of the same bird in several languages. “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world,” he said, “but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird…. so let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.”
Page 140

And we believe that the body’s stress-hormone response acts to enhance memory.”
Page 154

So, emotion helps us remember. That was clear. But this was new to me: that a bit of stress can help make that memory stick and feel more important than other memories.
Page 155

And there was no deodorant in my suitcase. I have a pathological fear of smelling bad, especially in front of twenty-eight hundred people.
Page 156

Laughter, he’s found, is far better than anger. And not just as an aid to memory, but as a way to connect.
Page 157

If we’re looking for a way to bring emotion to someone, a story is the perfect vehicle. We can’t resist stories. We crave them.
Page 161

As Mike has written: “Though the left hemisphere had no clue, it would not be satisfied to state it did not know. It would guess, prevaricate, rationalize, and look for a cause and effect, but it would always come up with an answer that fit the circumstances.”
Page 166

As Steve Strogatz told me, the trouble with a lecture is that it answers questions that haven’t been asked.
Page 169

So, what is a story? Aristotle is often quoted as saying that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Page 171

We can identify with someone who has a goal, but we root for someone with both a goal and an obstacle.
Page 172

Having a goal in the first place is crucially important. What does the hero or heroine want? What has she set out to achieve that is, at this moment, the most important thing in her life?
Page 172

I’ve often thought there ought to be a sign in the wings that says, “No one permitted beyond this point unless you know what you want with all your heart, and you know how you’re going to get it.”
Page 172

Here’s where the importance of the middle comes in. If an obstacle complicates the story and puts everything in doubt, then we have suspense and at the height of that suspense there’s going to be a turning point, where things are either going to get a lot better or a lot worse. There’s something very engaging about this because it’s difficult not to be caught up in someone’s struggle to achieve something.
Page 174

For me, the acknowledgment of an opposing thought is one of the things that makes science such a dramatic thing to watch.
Page 175

The more commonality between the storyteller and the listener, the more an MRI will show their brains in sync.
Page 178

Communication works only in cases when you understand something about what I’m going to say to you.”
Page 179

But even though any single study is seldom the final answer to anything, it can point you in a direction that’s worth exploring.
Page 181

And an awareness of similarity seems to be worth exploring, because it’s helpful in figuring out what the other person is thinking.
Page 181

There’s something appealing about a private language. It can be intoxicating. Jargon is like that, and the more rarefied it is—the fewer people who understand it besides you—the more it resembles the common hydrofloxia. It has a seductive aroma. You can get drunk on it.
Page 185

The three computer scientists at MIT who created SCIgen had shown how easily jargon gone amok can open the door to fraudulent research papers: nonsense leading to non-science.
Page 187

“Automatic SBIR Proposal Generator”
Page 187

Speaking jargon to the right person can save time and it can also lead to fewer errors.
Page 188

Their shocking conclusion was that very often extra knowledge is a disadvantage. At first it seems nonsensical that knowledge could be a burden, and even a curse. The problem, of course, is not in the knowledge itself. The problem is when you can’t imagine what it’s like not to have that knowledge.
Page 190

There’s something about having knowledge that makes it difficult to take the beginner’s view, to be able to think the way you did before you had that knowledge. And unless you’re aware that you actually know something the other person doesn’t know, you can be at a disadvantage.
Page 190

It’s like the line from a poem by Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Page 194

Scientists fail better when they’re looking for more truth rather than some absolute true-for-all-time truth.
Page 194

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