Until I trained as a therapist, I never intentionally paid attention to what happens in the process of communicating with someone. Communication just happened.
As I learned what process vs content meant, I realized how much information is embedded in the actual process of communication. I spend time with clients in session often helping them refocus on the process instead of focusing so much on the content.
The process is what is happening in a conversation between the two people. Like the overall dynamic. Are two people listening to one another and being attentive to what is being said? Is someone getting defensive, being loving, trying to manipulate?
The content is literally the details of the words being said.
What Process vs. Content Looks Like in Real Life
So, think about two people fighting over dishes being in the sink. Whose dishes they are and how long they have been there is the content of the conversation. We get so easily drawn into the content as human beings because it feels like we can argue these points concretely and this is where we are taught to focus. But as we argue about these details, we are literally getting nowhere.
The deeper level (the process) of what is happening in the conversation is how that communication is going down. Is someone getting angry or getting defensive? Is someone asking for help in a loving way? Is this conversation actually about something else that is happening in the relationship, but its easier to talk about the dishes?
See what I mean? There is so much more information in the process. If we can see into that level of the conversation, we can actually get somewhere.
How Do You Actually Get Somewhere by Paying Attention to the Process?
ONE: Realizing things are way less personal than you think.
How often are you left upset about an interaction when what someone else did or said has really very little to do with you? Wasted time and energy, friend.
Remember the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz? One of them is Don’t Take Anything Personally. There’s a reason for that.
For example, your partner may have had another experience of someone not doing the dishes before or not feeling supported or feeling like they have to do all the things, so they are triggered and communicating through that lens.
Or, the communication in their own household growing up was critical and so they see things and communicate through that lens.
Or they have a job that is centered around attention to detail so they notice when things are out of place more.
Or, they have always been criticized for leaving things undone because they get distracted easily and they are defensive when people point out shortcomings that result from that distractibility.
Notice how none of that has to really do with you or the dishes?
When you pay attention the process, you start being able to separate out what is about you in the conversation and what is about them.
TWO: You have more control over actually fixing something when you look at the process.
Once you sort out what you are contributing to the issue, you can actually do something about that. Because that part IS about you. And you have control over you.
What is about you in the conversation might be that you are being reactive to your partner’s stuff because you are taking it personally. You have control over that when you start to see beyond the content and into the process.
Your part might be that you are not being mindful about the dishes. You can work on that. The other person’s part might be that they are not feeling supported, that could be part of how they always feel because its hard to ask for and actually receive help. No amount of dishes you do will fix that. There will be something else you are not doing sooner or later. Or vice versa.
THREE: You get to learn about yourself and feel more connected.
What if the reason you are not being mindful about the dishes is because you are overwhelmed and your stress levels are too high? That’s probably impacting more than the dishes. It is impacting your health and your ability to be present in the important relationships in your life.
Maybe it is time to focus on stress management and get into communication with your partner about the fact that you might need a little bit of leeway until you get this under control. If you ask for leeway or support, make sure you are actively *doing your work* to address the issue you are asking for leeway to handle.
Ok, so how do I actually start to practice this?
When you first pay attention to this level of the conversation, you might only catch it after the fact. Unless you are in therapy with a therapist having this conversation in a couples therapy or family therapy session. It’s OK to realize after the fact, that’s the first step. Keep practicing.
When you are in conversations with your loved ones, start to notice what’s happening as it’s happening. “Oh, I’m getting defensive” or “wow, they are getting defensive”.
If someone is getting defensive, that is because they feel threatened. Check if you are saying something critical, are you creating a threat? If not, maybe their defensiveness is not about what you are doing in the moment.
If it’s not about you, you don’t have to continue in the conversation. Find a way to wrap it up and give a little space.
If it’s important, talk about it later. Ask if you inadvertently said something that bothered your person. They might say no because they are not used to talking or reflecting on this level. That’s totally fine, you are building trust and creating space for a deeper level of communication. It doesn’t happen over night!
So keep paying attention, making comments about what is happening in the process (“I’m noticing that I’m getting worked up”) and saying reflective things about conversations after the fact. They can be nice and encouraging process comments too like “I felt really good when you said xyz”. The goal is to be building up that safe space so that you both can start to focus on process vs. content.