I will focus on two aspects of human communication in this Field Note: 1) Content- the words and their collective meaning 2) Process- All the non-verbal aspects of human communication.
I will describe these two aspects with my major focus being on what I am calling the process aspect of communication. This is the non-verbal dimensions that include, body ‘activity’ associated with communication, and tone of voice and its congruence with content.
I will most importantly be suggesting that shifts from content communication to process communication has a great potential to increase the overall quallty of connection and relationship. Particularly, I hope you will see how process engagement and sharing is an immense doorway to intimacy and a deepening sense of connection. I will be suggesting that you work with yourself and all ‘others’ who are important to you to open the door to such shifts and, an interest and greater comfort and curiosity about and with, process communication. Admittedly such shifts can be shocking, and such shock can be positive and helpful, but not infrequently such shifts are surprising and have the opposite effect to the effect that is desired.
I will also say some things about the how of introducing these shifts as a part of a relationship, and how to do this over time and in collaboration with at least some of your ‘others.’
It has been said that over 90% of human communication takes place at a level other than what is being expressed verbally in words. I have read (https://www.revolutionlearning.co.uk/article/body-language-voice-words/) that body language makes up 55%; voice (pitch, pace, tone, and volume), 38%; and words, 7%. Whether the score is 93% or 90% or whatever is an academic debate that will not have a bearing on the present discussion that I am introducing in this Field Note. For us, it is enough to know that we communicate non-verbally through gesture, looks, tones, facial expressions, body language, moods, and “vibes” and that this non-verbal dimension of communication is hugely important. And I would want to bring this discussion into couples’ relationship: for, it is here, in the intimacy of relating, that we may amply witness the operation of all the dimensions of communication, and particularly the non-verbal in both how these dimensions are expressed, and how they are perceived and understood.
The Non-Verbal in Action: A Scene from A Couple’s Communication
John Gottman is well-known for his theory of what ruins marriage: he calls them, “The Four Horsemen”: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. The Gottman Institute has added the antidotes to The Four Horsemen: Gentle start up; Build culture of appreciation; Take responsibility; Physiological self-soothing (https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/). These indeed are excellent antidotes, and I would say that they would be good for not only couples’ relationship but for all relationships. However, what is missing in these descriptions is the process to get as close as possible to these ‘antidotes.’ All human beings could and need to learn to enact these ways.
I do agree with and recommend what Gottman teaches. (And I can also cite and recommend many other brilliant therapy theorists and practitioners, but that’s for another place and time.) What I wish to present in this Field Note is a foundational practice that can undergird and support any couples’ therapy methodology. Or, in pragmatic terms, I will say that, even if you have not heard of any of these “Who’s Who” in couples’ therapy methodology, you can learn what I am about to show you and apply to your relationship troubles, issues, and most importantly, growth towards fuller optimization of potential. (As an aside, let me say this: as far as I can see, most all human troubles are relational.)
I started out this Field Note with some remarks about the process Dimension of Communication, and I mentioned that what is communicated in this dimension is through “gesture, looks, facial expressions, body language, voice tone, mood, and “vibes.” I put this group of communication modes under the umbrella term of process, which is in contrast to content. The content of communication is comprised of words spoken or written (we can also add, ‘signed’): the ‘what’ of communication. To note, any communication is comprised of content and process. Further, as indicated earlier, our usual habit is to focus on the content: the words uttered, signed, or inscribed. As a side note, most of us have had some experience of relational collision due to misunderstanding of written communication, which obviously lacks all the process cues that could change the understanding of the communication significantly, sometimes in a helpful way, and of course, at times in a destructive way. Simply put, the practice is learning to identify the difference between process and content, and how to shift our communication with another fluidly between these two modes as we are engaged in a communication that we hope will be meaningful..
Importance and Benefits of This Practice
So, what are the potential benefits of this practice for couples’ (or any) relationship? Below are some key points to note:
The content of our communication goes through the interpretive filters of the deep layers of consciousness (aka, the unconscious or the subconscious). When this happens, the content will be interpreted, edited, and reshaped by what is already in the filters.
A husband and wife sit down at their Sunday breakfast table and share coffee and tea. They compare notes on what they have been reading in the news.
Antonio: What do you think about what is happening in the world these days?
Marisa:: I think this is about patriarchy and the oppression of minorities and otherness. I think this has gone on for millennia. I grew up with this. I see it everywhere. I feel angry, and I would like to grab someone by the throat and . . ..
Marisa gesticulates a throttling motion. Antonio recoils a bit, at the same time touching and pressing his tummy as if in pain. He notices that Marisa is speaking faster and faster in a raised voice and harsh tone.
Now, suppose that this couple has read this Field Note and decided to learn the content-process difference. In particular, they learn to communicate in the way of switching fluidly back-and-forth between content and process. What might this look like?
Antonio: As I listen to you, I am aware of some tightness in my chest and stomach, and that you seem to be speaking faster and, in my view, a bit shrilly. And, I feel lonely. It is as if I am losing you and our connection; our connection that matters so much to me, and, I know, to you.
Marisa: Ah yes, I am now aware that I am getting agitated and losing track of myself and you. I am aware that my body is ‘jangling,’ and I can feel the agitation building up in me. I need to soothe myself. Thanks for calling my attention to the process dimension of our communication and how it’s affecting us in our relational field. As well, I have noticed that your gentle and calm tone has helped me to be aware, and remind me that I don’t want to lose our connection, nor do I want you to feel such loss.
Antonio: Oh! I am glad and thankful. I feel the reconnection between us happening already.
Antonio gets up and goes over to Marisa. He puts his hand on her shoulder. She looks up into his smiling face, and they both take a deep breath together.
Of course, what I have described in this dialogue is not just a technique, and it is certainly not anywhere near this simple. In order to get to something like this latter dialogue it is certainly going to require a fair bit of inner work, relational work, and practice.
Working with Challenges
Let me offer some general perspectives as to what underlying themes personally and culturally are implicated here. The great majority of us have been brought up within the confines of an individualist culture that values the expression of one’s viewpoints, one’s opinions, and that is infused with how being an individual indicates being a person of strength. Relationally speaking, individualism, especially when pushed in the direction of ultra-individualism, can create major problems in people’s relational lives. Basically, ultra-individualists become rigidly stuck in a chronic state of isolation. For, in their relational interaction, they may win the argument but in the process lose the relationship, momentarily, or more extremely, completely. And, I hasten to add that at the other extreme having no sense of our individual self means that essentially we have no sense of our own needs, values, and fluidity of our essential identities.
Most certainly some of us have experienced sufficient life lessons, and subsequently decided to limit our participation in individualism, do the inner work with our egoic structures, and be more open (vulnerable) to life’s exigencies. However, as you may know, attempts at shifts in self-identity (at the extreme, insisting, “I am this kind of person,” are fraught with difficulties and meet challenges from all directions, including from yourself. You may well anticipate the shock of transition and the unfamiliarity of being in the territory of the personal and interpersonal. For most of us the shift to process comments and expressions is a large disruption, and liberates our immense potential to be increasingly authentic that is more closely aligned with who we actually are and more available to experience increased feelings of connection, intimacy, and vulnerability/openness.
This transition to a more open and vulnerable experience is both desired and feared. Especially challenging is learning to work with one’s partner to shift from the individualist framework to the relational framework. I would say that the easiest and best place to start is with awareness: self-awareness and awareness of the other or others.
Back to the Rough Terrain of Practice
Let’s look at the practice of noticing content-process distinction and working to shift fluidly between these two important communication channels. At first, you might find the work quite challenging and wonder what you are looking at and what you should be looking for. You can start anywhere. Initially it might be difficult to defocus from the words that are being said (content) and direct attention to yourself and others and notice facial expressions, hand gestures, body movement or non-movement, and so on, while still listening to the content (words). For sure, the reason why we call such a ‘practice,’ practice, is because we need to practice in order to become good at it. The more we practice, the surer and refined becomes our practice.
Particular attention can be paid to listening to the tone of voice that is accompanying what is being said. Is there some kind of modulation that seems to fit the content of what is being said or is there a lack of modulation? And does the modulation actually fit the words being said? Another important factor to noticing is any tendencies you, like the rest of us have to be judgmental. Or to use what you notice as ‘evidence’ of your rightness. Or on occasion to take in certain content for future use as ammunition for ‘smart’ rejoinders. Such tendencies will serve mostly to obscure the bare awareness of what is, and will definitely not contribute to an increased sense of connection, intimacy, and the fulness of life. When such tendencies persist, unchecked, one’s progress in learning to distinguish content and process; and to work with the latter is obscured and even halted.
A further difficulty is any tendency we might have to think that the other person ought to be aware of their behaviour and be able to just change it. This will most likely be accompanied by thoughts we have about how annoying the other person is and so, of course, we want them to change; and they should! If such thoughts and feelings come up, they are an important signal to us. The signal might be a reminder of our own efforts to be aware of and change our own behaviour. Hence, it turns out our best effort will include working with our own reactivity and the egoic states that arises in us. I might add that the idea that anyone ought to just change neglects the idea and efforts that may well have been made and have failed. If such was so easy, you would have already done so as would have the other person.
Some Words of Encouragement
I can’t emphasize enough the awkwardness that most people feel when they attempt to introduce this process talk into their conversation with their partners (family members, friends, colleagues). Unless or until this channel switching become an established part of you and your ‘other’s’ relational field, there will very frequently be a ‘shock’ reaction to this shift in the frame of reference. Ideally, you and your partner/friend will have discussed this change of reference frame and agreed as to its use and its value.
In this Note I have gone into some detail about the possibilities as to what constitutes process comment material. Introducing such comments and experiences is about expanding the horizons and depth of knowing, sharing, and enrichment of life experiences in the moment, which has implications beyond the moment. In short, this will expand what I might term as the taste and texture of communication, connection, and intimacy possibilities. The development of, and agreement about teamwork with this process is also a developmental process and itself presents great learning opportunities.
I will be happy to hear your thoughts and feelings about the possibility described in this Field Note.
Many thanks to Heesoon for her engaged support with this Field Note.
Many warm wishes to you all as Spring emerges, and shalom to you,