Many individuals believe that my job consists of trying to figure out the “why” behind their presenting issue(s). People spend decades looking for answers to their life’s biggest conundrums, driving themselves crazy in the process. The vast majority of them will end up six feet under without ever having received peace of mind. By focusing solely on the reason as to why something happened, we narrow our mind’s eye and neglect other pertinent questions.
Back in my first semester of graduate school, I took a class that covered the basics of mental health counseling and the helping profession. The first month or so of the course covered the “information gathering” phase of the client-counselor relationship, and, in my opinion, the most important. Not only was when the counselor got to know the client and his/her background, but also where rapport was built. Research has shown rapport between a counselor and client to be the single most important factor in determining treatment success. As a result, without rapport, counseling is doomed from the start.
One basic concept to help a budding mental health professional build rapport and develop a comprehensive perspective on their client is that of “content versus process.” “Content” refers to the actual material being discussed. It answers the questions “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where.” “Process” refers to the “how” it is being said.
What I loved about both content and process is its applicability to conversations outside of counseling. Both of them hold value as well, especially for critical thinkers.
Content helps keep the facts straight and relates more to our thought. By answering these basic questions mentioned above, managing content reduces miscommunication and disagreements. By showing that you are keeping track of a conversation’s content too, it shows that you are listening and paying attention to the other parties involved. What I also like is that it provides a structured outline of necessary information. It is like looking at a party invitation. Imagine if it only said a date and who it was for. Chaos would ensue without knowing what time, what to bring, and where it would be. Having that information reduces anxiety and confusion.
Process, on the other hand, helps us to tap into the emotional side of things. Another way of putting it is “reading between the lines.” By examining the “process” of what is occurring, we might pick up on vital information that content cannot provide. This includes body language, tone of voice, voice inflection, posture, etc. There is a huge difference between someone smiling brushing their hand in your general direction saying, “You’re a jerk!” versus someone gritting their teeth saying it and stomping away. It was the same exact phrase, but said in two very different ways.
Paying attention to both content and process greatly improves communication. Keeping in mind that this does not mean only paying attention to the other person, but also what you say and how you say it. There are way too many situations that I can recall that could have been avoided if I would have provided just one more bit of information or took into consideration how I said a statement. So much trouble could have been prevented.
There is a reason that they say that the most dangerous question in the world is “Why?” One of those reason is because we forget about the four “W’s” and “H” that are associated with it. Always remember that they hold just as much, if not more, value.
-The Caring Counselor