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Dec 13 2017
by Heidi Fliegelman

5 Life Lessons I Learned in My Communication Theory Class

By Heidi Fliegelman - Dec 13 2017

When I began college as a Communications Interest major, I honestly had no idea what to expect. I entered the major because for various reasons ranging from it being popular to the program seemed to cover amny different topics. After the first week of going to my lectures three times a week, I was hooked. I took copious notes because the grade for the class is solely based on three exams, but I also wrote so much down because I wanted to remember it. My friend and I would often joke that our class wasn't actually a 300 person lecture, but that it was actually a therapy session. With the class now in my past, I can confidently say that I think I really learned a lot, and will take the information I acquired with me throughout the rest of my life. This stuff wasn't just vocabulary terms and filler information. It was real explanations and theories about things that we as humans deal with everyday. Given what a profound impact the class had on me, I thought I'd share some of the things I learned here so that everyone – communications major or not – can have the chance to think about them. 

1. "Instead of being possessed by emotions, you need to observe them; name it and claim it."

This note is from a lecture that was pretty early on in the semester; it came straight from my professor, but was said to summarize some work we were looking at. We were discussing Attachment Theory, which is all about how the way you were raised as a child impacts the type of role you play in romantic relationships as an adult. My professor was overall saying how rather than just saying that we are afraid, we need to step back and realize why it is that we are afraid. In this specific case, we were talking about how someone who might not have had enough attention as a child could develop an abandonment fear in adult relationships, and that that is something they could recognize, rather than just staying unconsciously afraid. However, the same goes with any type of anxiety, nerves or really anything else. We learned that if we can take a moment to step back, be conscious of the emotions we are experiencing (name them) and then think about the why behind them, we can better process and accept them (claim them). A big note that I had highlighted and circled from this lecture was when my professor said that sometimes it can be helpful to remind yourself that, "I am not my thoughts and feelings; I have thoughts and feelings." Considering this lesson came during a really rough time during my college transition, I would say that this advice helped me a lot outside of the classroom. 

2. "Don't take someone's personality personally."

This quote was a big one; my professor repeated it lesson after lesson, and related it to so many different things in life. One way to apply this advice, however, is as follows. Thinking back, the first time I recall (based on my notes, anyway) this being brought up was when we were talking about the difference between true anger and projection. We learned that true anger is when someone has done something to you, it "involves transgression" of a negative act from them to you. On the contrary, if you're mad at someone just because they are going about their lives, you are projecting. When we project in a negative way, a way that makes us feel angry, we are doing just what the quote above says not to do – we are taking someone's personality personally. 

In our workbooks, there was a quote from E. Whitmont that began: "When shadow projection occurs we are not able to differentiate between the actuality of the other person and our own shadow attributes." This means that we are often taking something we maybe don't like in ourselves, seeing strains of it in another person and combining the two to make that person doubly "guilty" of being whatever it is we don't like. We are literally taking the actions of someone else personally, which creates even more problems. However, if we can take this advice and combine it with the advice of the first point about naming and claiming, we come yet another step closer to better understanding our emotions. Given all the new, different types of people I have been meeting at college, this advice definitely made a lot of things clear for me. 

3. "There is a proper way to comfort someone, and a proper way to give advice."

By "proper", I mean most effective. These lessons actually blew my mind, because so much suddenly made sense. First, there is literally something called the "Skillful Comforting Sequence," and, honestly, though it seems like something everyone should know how to do, I know that I am guilty of doing these steps out of order, or rushing them. The Skillful Comforting Sequence, straight out of the "Fundamentals of Communication Theory Readings and Exercises" workbook that my professor wrote, is as follows: "First – validate the person's feelings and help them further express them. Second – support the person. Let them know that they are valuable, that they mean something to you, and that you are there for them. Third – after the person's emotions start to ease down, offer advice, try to put things in perspective, offer encouragement." That last part is what really stuck with me. Too often, I know I at least try to jump straight into what I would do in the situation, but giving advice first means that the person probably isn't emotionally ready to handle it yet, and likely won't follow it. 

Additionally, my professor went on to explain the many challenges that come with giving advice, one of them being that advice threatens our sense of autonomy. No one wants to be told what to do; we always want to feel like we have the choice. So, my professor (and all of the thinkers he studied to create our workbook) stressed that advice is more effective when you put the element of choice into it. That way, the person you are comforting still feels like they have a say in the matter; they are able to choose their path. The combination of this with the above steps is said to make comforting a lot more effective and long lasting, and I have made an effort to at least attempt to incorporate that knowledge into my own relationships. 

4. "We cannot forget our obligation to realize our 'Experiential Values.'"

A lot of our course, especially the first half, discussed the concept of meaning, including what it is, how to make it, and where to find it. This next piece is straight off of a piece all about Victor Frankel who, according to the "Fundamentals of Communication" workbook that coupled with our class lectures, believed that "what makes life meaningful is meeting one's obligations and duties to life." For our class, we focused a lot on the obligation of being open. We discussed how we should be open to beauty and joy and believing in such things. We should not fall into cynicism and just defend ourselves from the possibilities of experiencing anything good. However, my professor (and thus, Frankel), stressed that we must be open to loss and disappointment, too. As difficult as it is, if we keep ourselves from getting into situations where we might be disappointed, or, big Communications Theory word here, disillusioned, we will never be able to learn and grow, at least not to our full potential. For me, I see now how college is a time where SO much is changing, and there are so many opportunities and what-ifs that arise, and it can be quite nerve wracking not knowing what's going to happen. However, this lesson about being open helped assure me that everything will work out; it will either remain beautiful, or I will learn from it. It was incredibly reassuring. 

5. "In the end, make your life your own."

Throughout the entirety of the course, this anecdote came up over and over again in a variety of different ways, but I'll finish off here by discussing it in its most basic way. My professor would often reference studies or articles related to what we were learning in class that had been published, and he really liked to tell the story of a study (we never got the name, my apologies), that was conducted where hospice residents were asked what their regrets in life were, and the number one regret was this: "I lived the life they told me to live instead of the one I wanted." He would then go off into different anecdotes on the subject, but the phrase itself always stuck with me. This wasn't listed anywhere in our textbooks on its own, yet it was used as a supplemental story so many times. 

As young adults, there are so many people above us that we are constantly trying to please, and I'm not saying that we shouldn't have regard for those people, but it is also not healthy to ignore what you really want for yourself.  There are people in science majors who really want to study art, but are doing these majors to please their parents. There are kids playing sports who have always wanted to have another activity, but they do the sport to fit in. There are people who go to parties every weekend not because they want to, but because that's just "what you do." This quote shows how dangerous living in genuinely is; we must have regard for others, yes, but we must also remain true to ourselves. As a college student trying to discover what it is in this world that I am truly passionate about, this quote had a huge impact on me every time it was taught, and I will definitely keep it with me as I continue figuring everything out. 

To conclude, yes, I know this was a lot. And, maybe, I'm the only one who found this so intriguing, or maybe these are things you already knew, and I'm just late to the party. But if there's anyone out there who needed to see any of this, I wish you luck in incorporating the advice into your life. I know that I had no idea I needed to hear these things and really see them spelled out, but, once I did, I couldn't imagine ever having not known them. 

Special thanks of Dr. Steven Mortenson, if you ever read this, for writing books and giving lectures that inspired me to such a degree. All information in this article is based off of his workbooks (Fundamentals of Communication, and Fundamentals of Communication Theory Readings and Exercises) and the research included in them.

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Heidi Fliegelman - University of Delaware

Heidi is currently a Communications Interest and English Education Double Major, and Theatre Studies Minor at University of Delaware. In addition, she works at a nearby coffee shop, and, in her free time, she is involved in her school's theatre program and as well as a leadership exploration program. She loves doing all things theatre, playing with dogs, trying new foods and coffees, and writing. Follow her here- Instagram: heidi_nicole99 | Twitter: HEID_andgoseek | VSCO: heidi_nicole99

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