Allie Mast is a senior major in politics and international relations, with an American politics concentration and a minor in English.


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.

Alan Alda’s If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? argues that communication is a two-way street, placing responsibility in the hands of the person speaking and the person listening. In doing so, he asks two questions: how do we become better speakers, and how do we become better listeners? As Alda answers these questions, he successfully conveys that responsible communication requires empathy; however, he fails to address how we ought to proceed with respect to jargon, the necessary evil of communication.

Perhaps Alda’s most insightful point was his emphasis on empathy as the heart of responsible communication. His discussion revealed that empathy is a misunderstood concept among myself and my peers, causing us to characterize ourselves as unempathetic people. This view might stem from empathy’s closeness to sympathy, which is the ability to understand someone’s suffering. While it may be true that we host an inherent, but varying capacity for empathy, Alda’s definition of empathy places it in the context of a practice to be adopted, rather than a trait that some individuals have and others do not. Alda encourages empathy to infiltrate spaces that can truly benefit from its presence: the doctor’s office, the classroom, the boardroom, and so on. He reorients our assumed understanding of empathy, placing it in the context of everyday communication. Alda notes that, “with our attention on the other person, and with a heightened ability to respond, we’re tuned in to the present moment; we’re in intimate contact with each other… we can sense what they’re feeling, and we have a greater awareness of what we ourselves are feeling” (43). Through this lens, empathy has reciprocal benefits. Not only does it make the speaker feel heard, but it puts ourselves in a better position to understand and contribute to the conversation.

Alda also successfully adds depth to the relationship between speaker and listener, recognizing the knowledge differences that exist between scientists and the public, doctors and patients, lawyers and clients, and teachers and students. He calls attention to jargon as an element of communication that can be both an asset and a hindrance in these relationships. Early on, Alda describes how “the pull of formality and jargon can yank someone into not relating” (4). He admits that “jargon is all right as long as the people you’re talking to know exactly what you mean,” but also acknowledges the slim likelihood of that happening, given that within a single discipline there might be an unattainable range of technical knowledge (15-16). Alda then drops the issue of jargon without resolving it until the matter resurfaces in the final chapters. Later, Alda concedes that jargon is in fact very useful, for one word can be used to summarize five pages in plain English (188). Yet again, Alda issues a warning against jargon: “the insidious thing…is that we know how beautifully it expresses precisely what we want to say, and…the person we’re talking to doesn’t have a clue as to what we’re talking about” (190). Over the course of the book, Alda cautions against the dangers of jargon, explains its benefits, and acknowledges the persistence of its presence. His failure to resolve this apparent conflict, or at least adequately explain that jargon might be a dilemma with no resolution, leaves readers on a cliffhanger, asking themselves now what?

A point of agreement between myself and Alda is that empathy can be used as a strategic tool in writing. Alda describes this tactic as “reading the mind of the reader,” where, by reinforcing a writer’s ability to focus on another person, the better they are at expressing themselves “with words that land on the reader with clarity” (134). Not only does this process improve the written communication for the audience, but, as we noted earlier, writing with empathy has reciprocal benefits. We become stronger writers when we compose arguments by reading the mind of our audience, or put otherwise, by anticipating what they might be thinking. Not only does it ease our writing process, but it also makes the reader more susceptible to our persuasion.

The field of politics would benefit from individuals implementing empathy, whether it be in the form of responsible communication or reading the mind of the audience. More so than other disciplines, politics is speaker-centric, and far too little do we listen well. Aside from his ineffective treatment of jargon, Alda’s book is empowering for how he elevates the importance of listening. He effectively shifts the power structure that traditionally exists, where the speaker sits higher than the listener. In doing so, Alda grants the speaker and the listener control. While they may have different roles in the conversation, they have a shared responsibility to understand and be understood. Both now in the classroom and in a future career, may I remember to speak for clarity, listen to make people feel heard, and write with my audience in mind.


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