Arguments are inevitable within a relationship. It doesn’t matter how well-matched the people are, disagreements are bound to happen. That’s why it can be more beneficial to figure out how to argue. One aspect of this “effective arguing” is understanding process versus content. Understanding the difference will lead to healthier, more productive arguments.

Defining Process versus Content

Let’s start things off by having clear definitions. Content is the literal statements within a conversation; it’s the words and nothing else. Similar to a police report, content focuses only on the facts. Additionally, content is free from emotions, and only targets the current situation. When people start arguing over semantics, they’re arguing over content.

Meanwhile, process is the subjective, emotional experience of the argument. It involves past arguments, cycles, emotions, and baggage. Process focuses on what the person felt in the past, what they feel now, and how they may feel in future. If content is the physical description of a car (e.g., red, two-door, sleek), then process is the experiential description of it (e.g., reliability, nostalgia, youth).

Example Scenario

To make process versus content more clear, here is an example scenario.

Scenario:

Maria and Tyshawn have been in a relationship for two years. One day, Maria has to go to a work event and asks that Tyshawn picks her up from it. She requests that he picks her up at 7pm, but Tyshawn arrives twenty minutes late. This then causes an argument.

This is how a content based argument would look.

Content:

Maria: “I told you to show up at 7pm, not 7:20. You agreed to that time!”

Tyshawn: “I said that I could pick you up around 7pm! Besides, I had to deal with traffic!”

Maria: “Why didn’t you just leave earlier then!? Also, 7:20 isn’t “around 7pm.” It’s around 7:30!”

The couple is stuck arguing about semantics and logistics, which is preventing them from getting to the heart of the matter. They are not discussing the underlying emotions and expectations present, which could happen if they focused on the process. Here is how it can look.

Process:

Maria: “To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed that I saw you at 7:20 and not 7. And to be even more honest, it kind of makes me feel as though I’m not a priority. And when I don’t feel like a priority, I feel as though you don’t really care about my needs.”

Tyshawn: “Okay, yeah. I’m sorry to hear that. I definitely prioritize you. I guess I sometimes get stressed out with my obligations, and cut everything too close.”

Maria: “Yeah, that makes sense. I just don’t want this to become a habit.”

Tyshawn: “Neither do I. I am trying, and I really want you to know that.”

In this conversation, the couple is able to talk about what’s really going on. Maria doesn’t feel like a priority when Tyshawn is tardy in doing things for her. Meanwhile, Tyshawn needs Maria to know that he has things on his end, and that he is trying within the relationship. All process conversations are not going to be this clear and neat, and that’s okay. Here are some things just to get you started.


Questions to Ask Yourself

Going from content focused arguments to process ones can be tricky, so here are some questions that may help with that transition.

  • What am I feeling right now, and what could be underneath the surface?
  • What about this argument seems familiar?
  • In what ways could my past experiences be affecting this conversation?
  • What am I actually trying to get my partner to hear?
  • If I were to be completely vulnerable right now, what would I tell my partner?

To be clear, answering these questions can be difficult during the middle of an argument. For some people, it’s easier to ask themselves these questions after there’s been time to cool off. As long as the person is asking these questions, however, they are more likely to pivot to process than stay in content.

If you still need help with effective arguing in relationships, try seeing an online therapist at The Center for Growth. Schedule an appointment at www.therapyinphiladelphia.com.