The Key to Better Communication: Content vs Process
There is a concept that I regularly teach my clients and I refer to it as “Content vs. Process.” When you can understand this concept and master its use in how you communicate, you will find empowerment in all areas of your life in which communication is a factor. Even better, you will relate on a deeper level that can improve the quality of your relationships.
Content refers to what is being talked about. If you are having a conversation about a memo that is late, or household chores getting done, those topics are the “content.”
Process refers to how the conversation is occuring. You may have heard this referred to as “metacommunication.” It involves body language, tone, and other strategies we use in HOW we communicate.
To demonstrate, if you are having a conversation about the late memo and you state, “if you can find time in your oh-so-busy schedule…” you are using sarcasm. Whether or not you are conscious of it or conscious of your motives, you are using sarcasm as a tool. Perhaps to let the person you are speaking to know you are annoyed. Perhaps to release some of your frustration by taking a jab. Perhaps you feel that this person is a chronic time-waster or is consistently less busy than you are, and all of those feelings you’ve been harboring are being communicated (poorly!) with that one sarcastic “oh-so-busy” line.
So your first step is to be able to identify what is content and what is process. Some negative “process” behaviors to look for are: defensive body posture, seductive behavior, manipulation through charm, sarcasm, attacking tone or words, interrupting, raising voices, etc. Positive “process” behaviors might include nodding in acknowledgement, reaching over to take someone’s hand, allowing someone to speak and to finish their point, using respectful language to disagree.
Notice when I give these examples of process behaviors, I do not even need to mention what the topic is. It’s because the topic doesn’t matter. In many cases, it’s insignificant, even to the people involved. The content is often a mere illustration for process behaviors. When I’m working with a couple, when I’m listening to content so I can understand what their priorities are, how they make decisions, and what the current stressor is, I’m more interested in HOW the communication takes place. I believe that if I can teach people to identify and change their process, they can communicate about any topic more effectively and render the therapist obsolete.
Once you can spot process, the next, most important, and more difficult, step is to point it out when the process becomes negative or otherwise unproductive. Yes, conversation stops, the content is put ON HOLD until the glich can be worked out. For example, if I”m trying to make a point to my husband and all the while, he’s rolling his eyes, shaking his head, and sighing, at some point, I need to realize that trying to make my point at all is useless. He stopped listening to me around the first impatient or disdainful expression in body language. So anything I say from that point on is likely to be, at a minimum, wasted energy or more detrimentally, fodder for conflict.
To be clear, I am not suggesting constant confrontation: “Why are your arms crossed like that??” “You are being sarcastic!” “Why should I even keep talking if you are just going to roll your eyes at me??” This is no more productive than trying to continue to make your point when the conversation has gone sideways on you. In fact, it’s inflammatory. You’re frustrated and the above, confrontational comments are probably cathartic expressions of your anger, or attacks.
So this is what you do…
When you observe a process behavior that is negative, you take a step back and observe it in a neutral way. “I notice that you don’t like what I’m saying.”
You can add your concerns about the behavior and that it is interfering with having a productive conversation. “You’re rolling your eyes and laughing. I don’t think I should say anything more until we can agree to really try and listen to each other.”
You might detect a raised eyebrow or shocked expression or a counterattack (“Well, YOU did this…”). To make a process-oriented statement, you stop and point it out right there, “Wait. You look shocked. Why?” Or “I’m trying to talk about something that bothers me and instead of listening and trying to help me resolve it, you’re listing what you don’t like about me.”
I promise that this kind of communication holds us all accountable for how we participate in a discussion/argument. It makes us be more careful (read “respectful”) about how we communicate and also makes us think a little deeper about what’s going on inside of each of us when we try to communicate.
You see someone’s arms crossed and their jaw set when you are trying to give them constructive criticism at work. Stop. Say, “Is this difficult for you to hear?” Or “I’m sensing that you are getting defensive right now.” Or “Do you have a problem with what I’m saying right now?” Now the onus is on the other person to have to ask themselves why they are behaving as they are and explain themselves.
Suppose they are passive-aggressive and say, “No. I’m fine. Go on” and they are so clearly patronizing you. You process-observe THAT to them. “Now I see that you are patronizing me. If you have something to say about this, you should say it; otherwise, I’m going to assume that there is no problem.”
You have to be willing to suspend the topic – and its importance to you – in order to get the communication back on track. If it’s not on track, what’s the point for the train to move anyway?