In her Spring 2021 “Mindful Communication” class Audrey Kono ’22 reflects on the book, ‘Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life’ that she reviewed as part of one of her assignments.
Illustration by Suz Boretz

Undergraduate course teaches students how to be mindful communicators

Will Hennes describes himself as the typical “go, go, go, not really acknowledging stress” type of USC student. The communication major, who is graduating in 2022, admitted that it was the pandemic and subsequent lockdown that started him on a path of self-reflection — eventually leading him to the concept of mindfulness.

“This was a new concept to me,” he said. “When I initially thought of mindfulness, I pictured a yoga person, or a hippie.” Hennes was aware of how much USC has been emphasizing mindfulness over the past few years and so when he came across the COMM 400 “Mindful Communication” class, he signed up. “The class really taught me how to take a moment, a breath and appreciate the world,” he added. “Overall, I feel like the course really did change my life. I know it sounds cliché, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”

This is exactly what Andrea Hollingshead, professor of communication, had in mind when she first proposed this innovative academic course in 2019, citing the rise in social media as one of the factors contributing to student anxiety. “This sense of perfectionism that students are striving for, that I think is unattainable, was making it so they really weren’t enjoying or benefiting from all the wonderful things that college has to offer,” she said. “They seemed to be stressed out at all levels — not just undergraduates, but master’s and PhD students too.”

Hollingshead, an expert on interpersonal and group communication, found a general lack of scholarship around mindfulness, communication and well-being and wanted to see if she could advance the conversation in a communication course. She was inspired by both the Mindful USC initiative through the Provost’s Office, along with the USC Center for Mindfulness Science, and applied the practices and science of mindfulness to create a framework for her four-credit course. “I believe this is the first university course ever taught on mindful communication,” she said. “Everything I found on mindfulness focused on the individual not on what happens between individuals. I could not find any previous models on which to build.”

She first taught the class in Fall 2019 and reintroduced it in Spring 2021, ten months after the pandemic began, aligning it with the stress students were expressing due to the lockdown.

Each session started with Hollingshead giving students a moment to breathe. As soon as they entered the Zoom meeting, she asked them take to turn off their cameras for a few minutes to slow down, breathe and meditate before they dove into the subject matter.

While the subsequent discussions ranged across such topics as gratitude, empathy and compassion, forgiveness, culture and diversity, antiracism and mindful leadership, each lesson started the same.

“I never thought I’d be starting my day out with a three-minute meditation, but here I am,” said Hennes, who started meditating outside of class and plans to continue throughout his life.

“You can feel a lift in your energy levels,” said Hennes’ classmate Annalise Castro. “It really puts you in a better mindset for the rest of the day.”

Castro, who graduated this May with a bachelor’s degree in communication, expressed how an assignment on gratitude stuck with her. One of their projects was to send a note or text of gratitude to a person who they hadn’t seen or talked to in a while to see how it might strengthen or rekindle a relationship. “What I found interesting about gratitude was that by taking the time to show your appreciation, it benefits you and the other person,” she said.

“In communication, we learn about a lot of the theory on how people communicate,” said Audrey Kono. “This class took a very human-centered perspective to show how we can communicate in our personal and in our professional lives.” The communication major, who is graduating in 2022, found value in the break-out rooms that were created inside the Zoom space to allow for more intimate conversations to the concepts they were learning. She also appreciated how she was able to tie in what she was learning in this course with another she was taking on group and team communication. “I was able to pull concepts together from both classes to create a final project on veganism that brought together everything I learned,” she said.

Hennes also turned one of the key concepts he learned in “Mindful Communication” into his final project, which analyzed celebrity apologies to determine whether they were grounded in authenticity and mindfulness. “I’m interested in a career in marketing, so it’s important to be able to really listen — to mindfully communicate with others — and not demand the attention in the room,” he said. “I think this concept will overall help me communicate better in the workforce.”

Hollingshead believes that more classes should incorporate mindfulness. “It was really heartwarming and incredibly rewarding to see these simple things change their lives and contribute to some ‘aha’ moments,” she said.

“It’s rare to find a course in which you are thinking, after it, ‘I’m going to apply so many different things I learned to my daily life for the rest of my life,’” Hennes said. “And this course definitely did that.”

Hollingshead is teaching a Special Topics CMGT 599 class this Fall called “Mindful Communication and the Workplace,” offered through the master’s in communication management program.