Josh Ammons is a senior politics and international relations major, with a concentration in international relations and minors in international business and philosophy


This post is the second of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this introduction for some brief context. 

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? asks Alan Alda throughout his narrative of experiences with scientists and the lessons about communication learned therein. This question addresses a dilemma faced not only by scientists but also by all of humanity. Alda describes “As we helped scientists be clear to the rest of us, I realized we were teaching something so fundamental to communication that it affects not just how scientists communicate, but the way all of us relate to one another” (Alda 2017, xvii). Thus, Alda’s book goes far beyond presenting tips on the finer points of communicating science and engages with topics of meaning, empathy, and connection. From his experience teaching communication, Alda finds that connection is a shared experience, extrinsic and requiring vulnerability from all involved. Empathy is the door through which we can step beyond ourselves and engage in deep, meaningful connections with others.

The ability to connect, Alda posits, is a skill many individuals unknowingly lack (Alda 2017, 77). The separation experienced between scientists struggling to communicate is reflective of the separation that everyone has felt interacting with others. Thus, the central dilemma of the book arises, humans are disconnected from one another, struggling to listen or relate. While people continuously strive for meaningful connection and impactful communication, humans tend to disregard opportunities to truly develop an awareness of another person’s emotions. To achieve such an understanding of another requires that the individuals open themselves up “to another person, tune into them, engage with them in a dance of ideas and feelings, and go to anywhere it takes you, together”(4). Empathy is the means through which surpassing these barriers and becoming “in touch with the inner life of another person” becomes possible (196). The ability to empathize allows people to engage on a deeper level with all manner of people, fostering greater communication, cooperation, and synchronization than previously possible. Flowing from these principles, empathy allows individuals to be more patient, thus furthering the potential for relationships to thrive (76). Thriving relationships make up the bedrock for communication that is empathetic, compassionate, and constructive.

If these principles of communication are followed, Alda asserts, the manner in which we communicate with one another, from the privacy of one’s living room to the public square of democracy, will be transformed. Observation, listening, and empathy allow individuals to see “things that weren’t there before” allowing for a deeper and more productive level of collaboration to be achieved (Alda 2017, 37). To Alda, this effect is “what democracy could be if we actually paid attention to each other”(37). While this statement addresses the polarization and dissonance evident within the American polity, it does little to consider the structures put in place to promote debate and deliberation.

At America’s inception, its founding fathers acknowledged a pitfall of democracies is “that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority” (Madison 1787, Federalist 10, par. 1). Thus, the founding fathers sought to instill a system imbued with “greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority” (Madison 1787, Federalist 10, par. 22). Hence, our nation was formed so that many voices may be heard within the decision-making process, allowing minority parties to still influence political decisions. In this manner, debate, deliberation, and disagreement are woven into our government. This is not to say that empathy and listening are not crucial to the function of American democracy. However, it is important to recognize that, in politics, ideas are often highly nuanced and complex, likely to cause significant disagreements. We may listen to one another and still come upon significant discord and disagreement.

Nonetheless, the ability to empathize and be vulnerable is essential for constructive communication. These principles are critical to politics. Oftentimes, politics can resort to browbeating or inflammatory language to ensure the success of a point of view. Alda, on the other hand, proposes a form of communication that relies on connection as its fundamental source of progress. To Alda, “unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you– I’m probably not really listening”(10). This paradigm for communication is incredibly valuable. Transforming the focus of political communication from elevating or suppressing views to fostering the shared discovery of ideas. While disagreements remain inevitable, this perspective still has the potential to radically change how one approaches the field.



Alda, Alan. 2017. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. New York: Random House.

Madison, James. 1787. Federalist Papers No. 10. Bill of Rights Institute. Accessed September 21, 2023.


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