Alan Alda may be best known for the role of wartime surgeon Capt. Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce, a role he played for 11 years on the classic CBS sitcom M*A*S*H. He also wrote and directed several of the show's episodes, including the farewell episode called "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen."

Even today, that last episode authored by Alda remains the most-watched non-sports program in TV history. One of Alda's latest works is a book called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, in which he credits acting for helping him understand the art of communication.

In a recent interview that appeared in The (Toledo) Blade, Alda notes: "The person you're talking to is not the receiver of your information but your partner in communication, and you have to engage him as a partner."

The point of the book and the learning center it inspired--The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in Long Island--is to empathically understand how what you say is landing on the person with whom you're trying to communicate.

For many years the center has worked with doctors, scientists, and medical students to improve patient communications. In the same article, Alda suggests that "when the doctor is doing the talking, the doctor has the tremendous responsibility of listening when talking. Otherwise there's no way of knowing if it's scoring with the patient."

Alda told The Blade he came to the realization that the kind of listening that truly leads to communication happens when "you're vulnerable to what the other person is giving you, when you're willing to be changed by the other person."

The suggestion that the art of communication is a partnership is one that sticks out to me. And the best definition of a partnership that I have ever heard is that it's a relationship in which both parties risk an equal amount. So how do you begin a mutual-risk relationship? Listen. And embrace vulnerability.

Managers and business leaders, take note. Here are three ways you can start understanding how what you say is landing on other people.

  1. What does it look like to you? Words mean different things to each of us. For some people, gratitude looks like a simple thank you. For others, it's a written note of appreciation. Still others assume the gratitude of friends or colleagues and don't need an acknowledgement of any kind. The best way to be curious about how our words fall on someone else is to ask: What does it look like to you? What does success look like? What does a quick response or a great vacation look like? What does wise parenting in this situation look like? How about effective mentoring? This is the starting point for connecting not with what you say, but what your communication partner hears or thinks.
  2. What do you think are the key points I am trying to get across? As passionate communicators, we feel strongly about what we need to emphasize or highlight. But is the thing we need to communicate the same thing the listener needs to hear? Check and ask--you might be surprised. The question for your partner is this: "What do you think are the key points I'm trying to get across to you?" It may even help to ask for the top three and see how they match your list.
  3. How do you best understand complex concepts? If you're to treat the recipient of your communication as a partner, then how that person processes information, ideas, and concepts matters more than how you like to send it. Some partners may understand best by prereading material and processing it in their own way over time. Others may understand best with a picture. If you were to draw it out, even as a napkin sketch, what would you draw? How would you explain and connect the dots of the sketch to ensure your audience understands? Still others prefer examples that are like the idea or concept, as they may be a practical way to make sense of the information. The recipient's preference matters.

As Hawkeye said so well, "The person you are talking to is not the receiver of your information but your partner in communication, and you have to engage him as a partner." The question is, how would your partners say you're doing?

What's your best example of engaging the people you're talking to?