The actor, Alan Alda has  written a book If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face?  I found it has very helpful advice based upon his interviewing various experts. Here is what he has written on some of the subjects I thought of particular interest. I recommend this book for a complete understanding.

The Benefit of Ignorance

I’ve often written about the problem of trial lawyers who approach their trial work from primarily an intellectual level. I’ve discussed lawyers who become deeply involved in technical or complex subjects in their cases. They think they are “semi experts.” When they talk to the jury or examine witnesses they do so in technical and complex terms they are familiar with either to show how smart they are or because they have become familiar.  The lawyer assumes everybody else understands as well as they do. I’ve argued we are better off with broad pictures of the issues and subject matter to avoid this common failure of communication with the jury. When Alda was conducting a television program on science he says that he would study the subject matter in depth in preparation for the interview with the scientist involved. But, here’s what he says he discovered:

“After a while, I saw that I was having trouble talking with them whenever I thought I knew more than I really did about their work. I was boxing in the scientist with questions that were based on false assumptions. I took a bold step and stop reading the science research papers before I met with them. I would come in armed only with curiosity and my own natural ignorance. I was learning the value of bringing  my ignorance to the surface. Ignorance was my ally as long as I was backed up by curiosity. Ignorance without curiosity is not so good, but with curiosity it was the clear water through which I can see the coins at the bottom of the fountain.”

The Rule of Three

I’ve written about the research done regarding the “rule of three.” There is communication significance in three versus four or more items in communication. For example illustrative slides should have no more than three points per slide stated in short, simple and clear English. Here’s what Alda’s writes about the rule of three:

“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 ways I say it, but can if I said another way. This lets them triangulate their way to understanding.

3. I try to find a subtle way to make an important three times. It sticks a little better.”

This is great advice I highly recommend. To illustrate my reasons just take the time to look at illustrative exhibits or listen to lawyers arguing motions to a judge, or asking questions or arguing to the jury. They are boring, too long and too complex. Filter everything you do in communication by the rule of three.

Good Communication Requires Empathy

Alda spends considerable time on the importance of empathy in communication. He cites the work of the psychologist Carl Rogers whose whole approach was based on empathy. Rogers conducted his therapy sessions by using words to reflect back what the patient was saying regarding their concerns and problems. He made sure they could clearly see for themselves the issues instead of his responding by giving them advice. His belief was that when people clearly saw the nature of their problem for themselves they would figure out the best way to deal with it. That created an empathetic bond between the patient and Dr. Rogers.  Alda suggests that when we talk to other people we should create empathy by  internally asking ourselves what the other person is feeling. We should then respond that feeling  back to them to ensure we understood, in the same way Rogers did. In doing so we create a bond between the speaker and the listener. Alda cites psychiatrist Helen Reese who trains doctors to be more empathetic, She suggested that we could increase our empathy by mentally labeling the emotions of others – “when you’re with someone, try labeling – is Jack upset? Is Jane excited?  It’ll change how you hear what they’re saying.” Even mentally noting the color of hair or eyes or other features of the other person increases an unspoken bond of empathy according to research.

Techniques for effective communication

I have discussed NLP technique of mirroring as well as the importance of body language in communication. Alda writes about this in connection with the  Merck Pharmaceutical company which was subject to sanctions of $900 million dollars in 2005 over their product Vioxx. It was discovered the drug was associated with strokes and heart attacks. However, millions of prescriptions were written even after it was shown the drug was unsafe. In fact, the company created a training program for selling the product in spite of the harmful impact of the drug. Alda recounts that the company told their 3000 salespeople that they were prohibited from discussing  studies which showed increased risk. They were trained in body language to create empathy with the doctor.  Representatives were taught how long to shake a physician’s hand, how to use verbal and nonverbal cues when addressing the physician to subconsciously raise their level of trust and nonverbal techniques involving mirroring. In notes for the leaders of the course mirroring was explained this way: “mirroring is the matching a pattern; verbal and nonverbal, with the intention of helping you enter the customer’s world. It’s positioning yourself to match the person talking. It subconsciously raise his or her level of trust by building a bridge of similarity.” While this is a shameful example of the misuse of communication techniques, it illustrates that good communication skills can be learned.

The point of Emphasis 

I’ve written about how the first 30 seconds of a beginning, whether in jury selection, opening statement or other parts of the trial,  are the most significant because people are fully attentive at that time. In a different context, Alda writes that readers assume what comes at the end of a sentence has special importance. This is called the “stress position” or a place of emphasis. He uses this example: Suppose you were to tell a friend a joke: “a priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar, and the bartender says, what is this a joke?” But what if you told it this way: “a bartender says: what is this a joke? Because a priest, rabbi and a minister have just walked into his bar.” When we write or create exhibits or examine witnesses or argue to juries, let’s keep this principle in mind.


I won’t recount Alda’s considerable Emphasis placed on the significance of story telling. We all understand how deeply embedded storytelling is in all of us.

We decide subconsciously and explain the reason rationally

I’ve written before about the research that clearly demonstrates most of our decisions and thinking occurs at a subconscious level without our even knowing it. I’ve previously cited research which shows that in spite of this fact people will always offer a rational excuse or reason for the decision which was actually made without their conscious awareness.The book cites the studies done on people who had the two hemispheres of their brain severed in an experiment to prevent seizures. Once that was done the two halves operated independently and neither knew the reason behind decisions or conclusions reached by the other half even though a joint decision or conclusion was reached. The book cites thousands of experiments done in this regard where each hemisphere was asked about a choice or an object’s function. The two halves independently  reached a single conclusion. Then they were asked the reason for the conclusion. In every case the person would come up with a plausible explanation even though one side  of the brain had no clue as to why the other side made the choice. People would guess, prevaricate, rationalize and look for a reason and would always come up with an answer that fit the circumstances. The same thing occurs when we asked the jurors why they reached the decision they did. In almost every case the decision was based upon subconscious impressions, evaluations and existing beliefs. The rational brain had little or no role at all and no awareness of it happening,  but people will inevitably cite rational reasons they believe but which in fact are not the actual reason or reasons.

Speak plainly. Avoid Jargon

I have often discussed the common mistake trial lawyers make using acronyms and jargon. They adopt them because they have become familiar to the lawyer or because they think everybody knows the meaning or they want to demonstrate how smart they are. But, jargon and acronyms are confusing and should not be used in our communication. Alda cites the phrase “martini shot” as an example, which is used in movie making. He explains that this refers to the last filming shot of the day, because  after which everyone goes home and has a martini. Jargon can be a foreign language. By using shorthand that is incomprehensible to the other person or referring to a process that are unfamiliar with, we lock them out and we don’t even realize it because we can’t believe we are the only person who understands the jargon. Speak plain, simple and understandable words if you want to be understood.

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