There's Nothing Better Than a Good Theory

By Ellie Walburg on July 17, 2019

Author's Note: This post is written by guest contributor Dr. Tim Detwiler, a faculty member for Cornerstone University's Professional & Graduate Studies division.

When you hear the word "theory," what comes to mind?

Perhaps you think of dull math classes in high school or a scientific proposition that really expresses nothing more than an opinion. But in reality, a sound foundation of theory can help you excel personally and professionally and in influencing others. Taking theory and applying it to your work allows you to engage as an experienced and equipped practitioner in your world.

Theory as a Practitioner

Person looking at a wall covered in papers with ideas

As an instructor at Cornerstone, I desire that all my students become the best practitioners possible. By practitioner, I mean that they have the ability to encounter any situation, collect all the contextual information and then know how best to respond.

This, to me, demonstrates the highest level of communication skills. In order to be the best practitioner, one must understand what is really happening in any social situation. For example, psychologist Kurt Lewin claimed "there is nothing more practical than a good theory." To be a good practitioner, one should develop his/her understanding of theory—a set of interrelated hypotheses explaining the way the world works.

Thinking in (Practical) Theoretical Terms

As a student of human behavior (communications focused), I find it helpful to always think of what is going on around me in theoretical terms.

The process is simpler than you may think.

Allow me to provide an example. Consider the following observations and then theorize about what is happening (the events occurring over a three month period):

  • My son begins dating a young lady.
  • Her first visit to our home found her car parked on the street and off of my grass.
  • On the next visit, she parked her car half on the street and half on the grass.
  • I arrive home another time to find her car parked in the driveway at the end.
  • A few visits later, the car is parked in the driveway and up toward the garage.
  • One day the car is in the garage.

Seeking to explain the way the world works, how are you connecting the dots between these various observations and concluding what is happening overall? You may be asking yourself questions like, "Is the use of space indicative of a growing relationship?", "Is the parking of a car (use of an artifact) telling you something of the type of relationship developing with the family?" or "Who is beginning to control the situation?"

Congratulations, you're theorizing.

As you answer the questions, you are actually theorizing as you "get your mind around" a set of practices, place them in a context and determine the meaning of the social environment. You may have been able to conclude—or theorize—that the young lady is growing in her relationship with our family and making herself more at home, simply by how she parks her car. By answering the questions of theory (psychology, sociology, ideology) you are better able to not only bring meaning to the situation but also have the information needed to understand how to act in the context.

Or, consider the following artifacts in a professor's office:

  • A desk is between himself and any student who visits.
  • On the wall, behind where the student sits is the posting of the degrees (e.g., B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) which the professor holds in descending order—almost in guillotine fashion over the student's head

Take a minute to theorize for yourself.

From those data points, theorize a bit—who is in control of the situation? Who is using prompts to set the power tone of the relationship? Does the placement of the artifacts provide a perspective for understanding the context and the people in the context?

As with the girlfriend example, an ability to gather information regarding the practical use of objects and bring meaning to the context is an act of theorizing. In this example, the professor intentionally separates himself from the student and emphasizes his authority by the display of his degrees. In essence, practice informing theory while allowing theory to inform practice.

Putting Meaning to Practice

Lightbulb with a thought bubble drawn around it

My contention is that one's ability to put meaning to the practice of human interaction provides a framework for understanding the situation, a way to understand how the world works and assistance in determining how one should respond. In sum, the skills required to both excel and influence in a given situation.

Now, apply this notion to the marketplace. In any given circumstance, observing the practice is critical and then being able to apply theory to it is a valuable skill to possess. As Ralph Waldo Emerson mused: He/she who knows what (practice) to do will always have a job. He/she who knows the why (theory) behind the what will always be the boss.

How to Enhance Your Ability to Apply Theory to Practice

Moving beyond learning about theory and putting what you experience into practice has great benefits, and is something you can grow and develop each day. Here are some quick and easy ways you can bring this concept into your own world.

1) Keep your eyes open

Part of recognizing these trends is to be aware of what's going on around you. Be sure to be conscious of this phenomenon and notice as you see it play out in your own life.

2) Think outside the box

Things aren't always what they seem to be at first. Don't be afraid to take your thinking up a notch and consider some alternatives and possibilities that are at play in a situation, particularly those options you may have dismissed previously. Doing so may just help you gain insightful conclusions about what's really going on.

3) Fuel your passion for learning

As a committed practitioner, you should never stop learning. There's always something else new to discover or things to understand. Don't settle for what you already know but be intentional about furthering your learning whether that's through a formal degree program, company trainings or your own personal opportunities for professional and skills development.

Apply Theory to Practice as You Learn

Establishing this foundation for theory and putting it into practice is fundamental in a degree program at Cornerstone's Professional & Graduate Studies division. These programs are theory-informed and practitioner-focused, which means you'll be equipped with the knowledge, skills and experiences you need to be an influencer in your world.

Engage in a curriculum that encourages you to stretch your thought processes and grow in your understanding of how you can be a leader in making a difference right where you are. Learn more about our degree programs and connect with our enrollment team by scheduling an appointment.

Category: Leadership