BOOKS

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating

Author: Alan Alda

Rating: 3.0 / 5.0

A few months ago I was at my barber’s and while Alex was giving me a trim I managed to catch Alan Alda on some morning show talking about his latest book.

Now to me, Alda will always be Hawkeye. It seems like all the times I turned on the TV in my youth after 9 pm, he was on in an episode of “MASH.” Likable, affable, and sensitive, beneath his ironic detachment, his bleeding heart was bare on the show. Later, I enjoyed watching him on “Scientific American Discovery” as he, it seemed to me, always managed to get the scientists to have fun and to show their passion for their study.

This was, of course, long before I thought I would ever document my love of a science (programming) and share it with the world.

In any case, Alda, in this morning spot, talked about his communication issues and the humility he has had to have with communicating with his wife over their 60 years of marriage! That someone who could offer so much sympathy and pathos in his performances couldn’t communicate emotions effectively was nothing short of gob-smacking. Furthermore, Alda points out that our inability to communicate science well has lead to the baffling counter-science movements of anti-vaccination and flat-Eartherism (for reals?). Based on that, I decided to take a look at this book in hopes that it might help me become a better partner, manager, and friend.

Summary

Alda looks back on his theater and improv (particularly in the Viola Spolin tradition) training and discovers that bringing some of those same skills to scientific communicators perceptibly changed the way they communicated with their audiences. As they and he relate more genuinely and with curiosity, conversations became freer and the interlocutors found themselves giving more empathetic, in-tune, and jargon-free.

Relating is “the difference between planning how you’re going to behave, which looks like acting, and finding your performance in the other person’s eyes, which makes you respond to one another—and which looks like life.”

What an insight!

Repeatedly Alda articulates what’s acting inside active listening:

…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.

Or:

Was I talking to you, or was I just making noises?

Or:

Total Listening Starts with Where They Are

For Alda, the stakes are real: for lack of good communication dentists hurt patients, doctors fail to soothe patients, marriages disintegrate and, particularly close to his heart, scientists fail to communicate the mortal stakes of inaction or incorrect action on the future of life on this very planet.

While the book covers on several third-party sources for more information on constructing narrative communication (Gopen et al), the trick of emotional mindfulness to another as tuned by emotional engagement exercises is the foundation of the book. As a thesis, it’s somewhat thin for the length of the book, but Alda’s breezy and friendly voice lead you to not mind so much that the conversation is running long.

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      "highlight": "“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —often attributed to GEORGE BERNARD SHAW. Although it’s doubtful he ever said it.",
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      "highlight": "When it finally became clear to me that I often didn’t understand what people were telling me, I was on the road to somewhere good.",
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      "highlight": "Not being truly engaged with the people we’re trying to communicate with, and then suffering the snags of misunderstanding, is the grit in the gears of daily life.",
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      "highlight": "Developing empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking are both essential to good communication, and are what this book is about.",
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      "highlight": "It’s an amazingly simple thing, a power we’re built to use, and yet too often ignore. In acting, we call it relating.",
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      "highlight": "I had spent my whole life on the stage listening to the other actors. Or trying to. But it seemed to be something I constantly had to relearn.",
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      "highlight": "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.",
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      "highlight": "You don’t say your next line simply because it’s in the script. You say it because the other person has behaved in a way that makes you say it.",
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      "highlight": "it’s the difference between planning how you’re going to behave, which looks like acting, and finding your performance in the other person’s eyes, which makes you respond to one another—and which looks like life.",
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      "highlight": "real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.",
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      "highlight": "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.",
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      "highlight": "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.",
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      "highlight": "I was learning the value of bringing my ignorance to the surface.",
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      "highlight": "The scientists could see exactly how much I already understood, and they could start there.",
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      "highlight": "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.",
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      "highlight": "They stopped feeling compelled to speak in highly technical language.",
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      "highlight": "Communication doesn’t take place because you tell somebody something. It takes place when you observe them closely and track their ability to follow you.",
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      "highlight": "communication is a group experience.",
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      "highlight": "He did have a lot of science to teach, and he seemed to feel that students would pick up the fine points of communication just by listening to good communicators. But just listening to good communicators doesn’t work. It takes training to learn how to do it. I’ve been listening to good pianists all my life and I still can’t play the piano.",
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      "highlight": "Being truly connected to the other person happens when we see them in a way that’s both emotional and rational, especially if we include listening with our eyes: looking for clues in the face, in gestures—in all the nonverbal signs of a state of mind. It’s complete and total listening.",
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      "highlight": "First, it’s understanding what another person is feeling—what’s usually called empathy—and second, an awareness of what another person is thinking—what scientists call Theory of Mind.",
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      "highlight": "THEORY OF MIND",
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      "highlight": "children below the age of four and a half or five in which they were sure that what they knew was also known by everyone else.",
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      "highlight": "The person who’s communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows him.",
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      "highlight": "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. This is at the heart of communicating:",
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      "highlight": "I tell the players that now neither one of them is leading; they have to find the motion together. They’re both leaders and they’re both followers. This doesn’t just seem hard to do, it sounds impossible. Somehow, they have to achieve a kind of instantaneous synchrony.",
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      "highlight": "why does synchronous marching persist in the training of soldiers? Is there some advantage to it? The answer, they found, is yes. It can strengthen cohesion",
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      "highlight": "In other studies, simply tapping in sync, like tapping on a table,",
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      "highlight": "behave more altruistically toward them.",
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      "highlight": "improvisers these patterns showed a striking result. When they engaged in a purely joint improvisation with no leader, their mirroring was more synchronized and more rapid than when one of them led and the other followed. They were actually more in sync when there was no leader.",
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      "highlight": "Suddenly, everyone is seeing things that weren’t there before. It’s sort of like what democracy could be if we actually paid attention to one another.",
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      "highlight": "It only became real because they were observing one another and accepting the dynamics of how the group handled it.",
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      "highlight": "Acting wasn’t involved—at least not what people conventionally think of as acting.",
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      "highlight": "Instead, 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. It’s as though the raw, vulnerable tissue of our most private self is in contact with the same vulnerable self of the other player.",
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      "highlight": "David and his fellow nanoscientists had to make clear to them what two-dimensional glass was all about. Before they could do that, they had to make them want to know about it.",
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      "highlight": "I was surprised that no one had tracked this kind of emotional gap between doctor and patient before.",
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      "highlight": "Helen on an effort to teach other doctors how to be more empathic with their patients, as well.",
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      "highlight": "What did Helen teach doctors that prevented that?",
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      "highlight": "avoid what she calls “affective quicksand.",
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      "highlight": "“Cognitive and affective empathy…",
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      "annotation": "Restate of the primary categories used to describe relating"
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    {
      "highlight": "Would IQ be the most important factor, or was there some other deciding factor for a team’s success?",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "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.",
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    },
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      "highlight": "“gender diversity in particular facilitates creativity.”",
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    },
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      "highlight": "it’s up to the leader of the group to motivate the students,",
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    },
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      "highlight": "“The goal,” he was saying, “is to provide people with the conditions that enhance their natural self-motivated behavior.”",
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      "highlight": "Now he teaches improvisation to scientists",
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      "highlight": "“Improv is listening. I listen now,” he says. Yes And, the fundamental rule of improv,",
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      "highlight": "a combination of empathy and the more rational Theory of Mind is the very foundation of communication.",
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      "highlight": "Total Listening Starts with Where They Are",
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    {
      "highlight": "you might be able to ignite the desire in a person to perform well by tuning in to their state of mind.",
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    {
      "highlight": "I’m sure most good salespeople know their job is to help the other person get what they want, and even better, what they need, but for me it was a revelation.",
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    },
    {
      "highlight": "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.”",
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    {
      "highlight": "know from my experience as an actor that an authentic tone of voice is produced deep inside the brain, not in the voice box.",
      "location": 1201,
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    },
    {
      "highlight": "“You have to keep both things in mind at the same time: What’s the story? Where are you in the story?…And what ultimately makes it memorable is that the thing that I care so much about lives inside somebody else’s head, and that it’s received.”",
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    },
    {
      "highlight": "help doctors understand that in fact it is actually possible to learn to become more empathic.",
      "location": 1343,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Heinz Kohut said that without empathy there is no treatment.",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The key to putting that empathy tool in the bag is making use of the brain’s ability to reflect what another person is going through.",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "She recommends getting the patient’s perspective—by asking the patient, “What do you think is causing the problem?”",
      "location": 1368,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Getting the patient’s perspective is what Helen Riess calls cognitive empathy: an important first step in the doctor’s ability to resonate emotionally with the patient.",
      "location": 1379,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "You take responsibility for regulating your own feelings.",
      "location": 1386,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Control groups that had been given other kinds of arts training, such as training in music or visual arts, showed no such improvement. Only theater training did it.",
      "location": 1394,
      "annotation": "Recall Reagan who couldny have donde presidency without acting"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "When I talk to an audience, I try to make no more than three points.",
      "location": 1453,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "I try to explain difficult ideas three different ways. Some people can’t understand something",
      "location": 1455,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "I try to find a subtle way to make an important point three times.",
      "location": 1457,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "I stopped practicing empathy for a while; it was exhausting.",
      "location": 1515,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "I would mentally attach a word to what I thought was their emotion.",
      "location": 1517,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "First, I felt I was listening more intently to what they were saying,",
      "location": 1518,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "secondly, I would feel a sense of comfort, almost a sense of peace, come over me.",
      "location": 1519,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Helen explores the importance of gazing into another person’s eyes and the need we all have to be seen, to know we’ve been seen. The gaze changes us.",
      "location": 1725,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "when dog owners gaze into the eyes of their pets, the oxytocin levels in both the owners and the dogs increase.",
      "location": 1736,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "literary fiction, where the author delves into the emotional life of the characters with depth and sensitivity. And studies have shown that reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind,",
      "location": 1750,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In a course called “Captivating the Customer,” representatives were asked to become familiar with “nonverbal techniques involving the eyes, head, fingers and hands, legs, overall posture, facial expression, and mirroring.”",
      "location": 1817,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "we teach science students how to distill their message: to get to the point right away, to not get lost in the details, to keep it clear and vivid, to make us care.",
      "location": 1892,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "they had been trained to think about the other person’s state of mind",
      "location": 1895,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The more we reinforced our students’ ability to focus on the other person, the better able they were to express themselves",
      "location": 1898,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Gopen is Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric at Duke University. He says that when people read, they have some basic expectations that have to be met, or the reader will become confused and frustrated.",
      "location": 1903,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "paper George Gopen wrote with Judith Swan, called “The Science of Scientific Writing,”",
      "location": 1906,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The very beginning of the sentence, Gopen says, is where the reader expects to hear what the sentence is going to be about.",
      "location": 1913,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "start doing something, or we’ll wonder why he’s there, and Gopen feels the verb—the action—should come soon after the hero’s entrance.",
      "location": 1919,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "readers assume that what comes at the end of the sentence has special importance. He calls it the stress position, a place of emphasis.",
      "location": 1921,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Writing about Math for the Perplexed and the Traumatized,”",
      "location": 1948,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "teaching, everyone seems to have heard the phrase “start with what they know.”",
      "location": 1966,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The contest was spreading the notion of science communication in more ways than we had imagined it would.",
      "location": 2030,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "If the first principle of teaching is to start with what they know, I think the Flame Challenge suggests that next in importance is that a little autonomy can give students the joy of discovery. And both of these ideas involve empathy and Theory of Mind—a recognition of the interior life of the student: being aware of what they know—and what they want to know.",
      "location": 2038,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Sometimes, being willing to see the other person means you have to be willing to let them see you.",
      "location": 2065,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "I actually do think there are times when technical descriptions can be cast in emotional terms. It has to be crafted for the right audience, of course, and it has to be accurate, but once we’ve become accustomed to brushing shoulders with the emotional, it can make a difference.",
      "location": 2128,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "You might feel that even this much emotion cheapens the account. I would agree if this were a technical report in a scientific journal. But for us laypeople, a couple of emotional words can often turn a recital of the facts into something more engaging that will stick in the mind.",
      "location": 2142,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "And that’s the interesting thing about emotion. It doesn’t just make what we say more engaging—it makes it more memorable, too.",
      "location": 2143,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Emotion Makes It Memorable",
      "location": 2147,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "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.",
      "location": 2194,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The kind of emotion matters.” Laughter, he’s found, is far better than anger. And not just as an aid to memory, but as a way to connect. He’s especially aware of this when he teaches.",
      "location": 2224,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“So, how can we excite emotions in people who have no training in what we’re talking about?” I asked her. “Story,” she said. “Like when you were sick—the anastomosis story.”",
      "location": 2284,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "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.",
      "location": 2294,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“Tell me a story.” Don was certain that these four words were what kept 60 Minutes at the top of the ratings for decades.",
      "location": 2301,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“Six months. They were barely able to do more than gurgle, but they were able to uniformly interpret what they saw and turn it into a little narrative",
      "location": 2339,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“The vast majority of everything we do goes on outside of our consciousness, everything from touching the end of your nose to trying to think about the next sentence you’re going to say.",
      "location": 2363,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Damasio makes the same point when he calls stories “a fundamental way in which the brain organizes information in a practical and memorable manner.”",
      "location": 2370,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "every experiment is a story.",
      "location": 2376,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "we see that storytelling is amazing; it has the power to make people really aligned and more effective passing information between them.”",
      "location": 2392,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "I could tell her a couple of facts. Because now she’d want to know.",
      "location": 2402,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the trouble with a lecture is that it answers questions that haven’t been asked.",
      "location": 2403,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "But then I fill the glass with water—so full that if I poured even one more drop it would spill over the top. I ask her to carry the glass back across the stage and put it down on a table. “But be careful,” I say. “If you spill even one drop, your entire village will die.”",
      "location": 2445,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Having a goal in the first place is crucially important. What does the hero or heroine want?",
      "location": 2451,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“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.”",
      "location": 2454,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Why am I here? Who am I talking to? What do I want to accomplish? What’s my mission? And then I tell stories. Stories with obstacles in them.",
      "location": 2457,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "starts on the left of the drawing, with a “question.”",
      "location": 2465,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the importance of the middle comes in. If an obstacle complicates the story and puts everything in doubt, then we have suspense",
      "location": 2470,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "oppositional force can even liven up an essay.",
      "location": 2475,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "acknowledgment of an opposing thought is one of the things that makes science such a dramatic thing to watch.",
      "location": 2485,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "We just have to remember that when we tell the story we can’t make the trip our leading character makes across the stage too easy. It’s not dramatic to carry an empty glass. We have to fill it to the brim.",
      "location": 2517,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“The more commonalities you have with the speaker,” he told me, “the better the understanding.”",
      "location": 2524,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "For the best communication to take place, it may be that we can’t just be alike; we may have to be aware we’re alike.",
      "location": 2541,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "He looked at learning as a social process, an interaction, and explored the relationships between students and teachers.",
      "location": 2553,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "as long as it doesn’t seem fake, the more we establish familiarity with our audience—not speaking to them from left field or from on high—the better chance we have that they’ll listen to what we have to say.",
      "location": 2611,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Jargon and the Curse of Knowledge",
      "location": 2614,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Sometimes one word can stand for five pages in plain English. If people in the same field share a knowledge of that meaning, they’re not going to use five pages if one word will do, and they shouldn’t be expected to.",
      "location": 2664,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "jargon creeps into almost every profession: It can feel good to speak jargon.",
      "location": 2673,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "People seem to bond when they share shorthand.",
      "location": 2675,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The insidious thing about jargon is that we know how beautifully it expresses precisely what we want to say, and it simply doesn’t occur to us that the person we’re talking to doesn’t",
      "location": 2682,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In these moments, we suffer from a very common malady.",
      "location": 2683,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "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.",
      "location": 2691,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "There’s something about having knowledge that makes it difficult to take the beginner’s view,",
      "location": 2693,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "unless you’re aware that you actually know something the other person doesn’t know, you can be at a disadvantage.",
      "location": 2694,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The problem for the tapper is the peculiar disadvantage of the curse of knowledge. It’s almost impossible to tap out the rhythm of a song without hearing the melody in your head.",
      "location": 2720,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "line from a poem by Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”",
      "location": 2734,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Scientists fail better when they’re looking for more truth rather than some absolute true-for-all-time truth. And the rest of us fail better when we give ourselves over to the improvisation of daily life.",
      "location": 2735,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "If we remember that every conversation we have, every bit of advice we give, every letter we write, can be an exchange in which the other person might actually have a better way of looking at it, then we have a chance to be in sync, to be in a dance with a partner. Not a wrestling match with an opponent.",
      "location": 2741,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Practicing contact with other people feels good. It’s not like lifting weights. It feels good while you’re doing it, not just after you stop.",
      "location": 2751,
      "annotation": ""
    }
  ]
}