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Alan Alda talks empathy, communication in Authors! Authors! visit

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    Actor and author Alan Alda speaks at the Stranahan Theater & Great Hall during Thursday's Authors! Authors! event.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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  • FEA-ALDA06

    Actor and author Alan Alda speaks during Authors! Authors! at the Stranahan Theater & Great Hall on Thursday.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
    Buy This Image

Nearly 14 years ago, Alan Alda’s life changed when he very nearly died.

As the opening speaker to this season’s first Authors! Authors! program, presented by the Toledo Lucas County Public Library and sponsored by The Blade and Buckeye Broadband, the 81-year-old acclaimed actor, dapper and warm on stage Thursday, explained to a sold-out crowd at the Stranahan Theater & Great Hall those events.

Mr. Alda was in an observatory on top of a mountain in another country filming his PBS series Scientific America Frontiers when he crumpled up in agony.

The M*A*S*H actor thought it was his appendix. So did a young medic on the set. After a 90-minute drive down the mountain to meet with a small-town surgeon, Mr. Alda learned that a yard-long portion of an intestine was dead due to a lack of blood after becoming crimped up.

The surgeon kindly and patiently explained the surgery to Mr. Alda, to which he replied with the rather long medical term for the procedure.

“He said, ‘How do you know that?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I did many of them on M*A*S*H’”

VIDEO: Alan Alda at Stranahan Theater

Not only did the surgery save Mr. Alda’s life — as he put it “The way the story ended is I lived” — but it made him rethink how we communicate. It inspired him to open a place to foster better communication between scientists and doctors and others who aren’t their peers now called the Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in Long Island.

Earlier this year he wrote a book about it, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?, with the intent of making people better communicators by listening to others while we speaking and looking at others while listening.

As he told the audience of 2,424 — the fastest sell-out in the program’s history, said Ben Malczewski, Authors! Authors! coordinator — good communication requires empathy and empathy requires relating to others.

Empathy can also be learned and even trained, Mr. Alda said.

Doctors and scientists enrolled in his school, for example, take part in improv classes designed to help build their empathy, so that they “really talk to someone and are not spraying them with information.”

“Relating is the heart of acting and the heart of communication,” he said. “And that doesn’t just apply to scientists and doctors, but salesmen and couples.”

There are several ways anyone can improve their empathy and ability to communicate.

Watching TV without sound.

Reading novels where the protagonists are challenged and express strong emotions.

And observing and deciphering faces of people you see, particularly strangers.

Mr. Alda used the latter as a test on the audience, with the room divided into two groups: either a teen who wants something or the parent who must decide whether to give it to the teen.

As it turns out, Toledo wasn’t so good about giving; almost none of the “parents” agreed to the request.

“You’re a cheap crowd,” Mr. Alda joked.

After two more examples of types of communication and how we respond, Mr. Alda wrapped up the night with an anecdote and then took questions from the crowd, including what it was like working with Woody Allen on several of films.

He didn’t speak much to anyone on the set, Mr. Alda said, and struggles with being happy.

“But he’s much more cheerful since he married his daughter,” Mr. Alda said to big laughs. “He wouldn’t be upset with that. If it gets a laugh comedians are OK with it.”

Fellow M*A*S*H actor Jamie Farr was unavailable to join Mr. Alda onstage, but opened the presentation with a nice tribute to his longtime friend, “who’s always been there for me, always available when in need, and always encouraging.” Mr. Farr concluded the video asking everyone to “Please make sure you give Alan the welcome I would given him if I were in the audience there with you.”

The next speaker in the Authors! Authors! series is Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Will Haygood. The author of The Butler: A Witness to History will speak on Nov. 1 at the McMaster Center at the Main Library in downtown Toledo, 325 Michigan St.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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