Friday, March 23, 2012

Process Versus Content

It's a very simple concept, really.  But I remember first hearing about it many years ago in graduate school and getting it, but not getting it, and what made it worse was that the instructor, Joy Johnson (where are you, Joy?) made a serious pitch, told us that if we didn't get it, basically, we would be only be so-so at this job.  Whereas if we did get it, we had half a chance.

A patient ended up clarifying it for me, unintentionally, of course.  Joy taught us that process is what's happening, the action, and that content is the story.  There's a difference between seeing something, and hearing about it.  The guy selling you a car is going to be friendly, and he'll tell you all about the features and wonders of the vehicle, but if he sells it to you, it is likely because of the way he worked you, not because it's such an awesome car.

But you want to know what the patient said, so many years ago.

Her boyfriend would shut down when she asked him things, asked for any kind of explanation for his behavior.  He behaved like he didn't understand, but she insisted that he did, that he just didn't want to answer, a passive aggressive defense.  She thought him mean, stingy with words.

She didn't realize that he felt cornered, on the defensive, which made him anxious, and his anxiety got to the point where he really didn't know what to say, indeed, he forgot what she had even asked.

They broke up, but she wanted him back, and he wanted her back, so they started it up again after a few months apart.  But she kept coming back to one particular incident in which he avoided her question.  She said: (a) It troubles me that he won't answer the question. (That would be process.) and (b) I really want the answer to the question.  (That would be content.)

Which bothers you more, I ask: that he won't answer, or that you don't know the answer. The former, of course.  The process.

That's what Joy means when she says that process is more important than content.  So we focus on that, because when we resolve the mystery of process, the content barely matters.



Mary LA said...

Wonderful way to put it. I once went out with somebody who would go silent at the wrong moment in the conversation and say 'I'm busy processing.' Now I look back and think he probably was just processing. Back then it felt like the cold shoulder and I didn't care about the outcome of his processing.

Have Myelin? said...

Processing ALWAYS bother me more than content.

Anonymous said...

As a relatively fast processor, it unnerves me when hubby gives me that blank stare. And I'm even in the BUSINESS... still can't stand it.

Anonymous said...

it always seems i am much more about the story and the content and figure out the processes later..much later it seems ...i tell my it is about context and content...but i definely need time to process stuff.

Natasha said...

One of my supervisors enlightened me to the content vs. process approach in therapy. Like you, it was something I understood but it took me a while to actually be able to identify the process with my clients. Thanks for the article!

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