When I was studying interpersonal communication and how to track an argument or any other verbal exchange, one thing that was very much emphasized was the difference between content and process.

Content is just what it sounds like: the subject matter about which two people (let’s say, a married couple) are talking. “Did you do the dishes last night?” Process is everything else—for example, the emotion with which something is said, the type of vocabulary used, tone, repetition, body language, and the unspoken subtext (which can include a covert or overt goal of the speaker).

Once you understand the distinction between content and process, you can often notice the difference.

For example, if you go back and look at the transcript of the press conference in Helsinki after the Trump-Putin talks, you’ll see that most of Trump’s more criticized remarks were made in the context of answering questions rather than during his prepared statements. And some of those questions were “gotcha” questions. It’s hard not to fall into a trap if a person responds to a “gotcha” question with a content answer rather than a process one.

Let me illustrate. Here’s one exchange I’m referring to, in which the following question was asked of Trump:

Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did.

What — who — my first question for you, sir, is who do you believe?

Trump had the following choices in terms of a content response:

(1) I believe our intelligence. In other words, Putin’s lying—and of course Putin was standing right there and the eyes of the world were on them both, so whatever negotiations and rapport that might have been established at their previous meeting would have probably been undone by a statement like that from Trump

(2) I believe Putin. In other words, our intelligence is lying, which would create another firestorm if he’d said it.

(3) I’m somewhere in-between. Trump actually chose door #3, which seemed safest. He answered:

…I’ve been asking…for months…Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying?

With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coates came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.

I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be [NOTE: Trump later said he’d meant to say “wouldn’t be.”] But I really do want to see the server.

But I have — I have confidence in both parties. I — I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server…

So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people.

But as you probably know, this response of Trump’s resulted in an enormous hue and cry, and it pleased just about no one. It gave an opening to many people to declare that Trump was saying that he believes Putin over our intelligence, although he actually didn’t say that. But it was a reply from Trump that was neither fish nor fowl, and it was somewhat confusing as well.

I believe that a better approach would have been a process response rather than any sort of content response at all. Now don’t get me wrong—I actually think that any answer Trump could have given would have drawn harsh criticism; as I said, the question itself was a trap. And just about everything Trump does draws harsh criticism from the many people opposed to him. So what I’m about to suggest would have drawn criticism too. But I believe it would have drawn criticism from fewer people, and given them the least anti-Trump ammunition possible under the circumstances.

Something like this sort of response is what I’m talking about:

We’re in Helsinki, we just had a conference between the heads of state of Russia and the US, and we talked about all kinds of extremely important and substantive issues which I mentioned in the address I just gave. But you’d like to get me to be accusatory towards Russia right now, or accusatory towards US intelligence agencies right now, and I won’t do either thing. I won’t play that game, although you’d like me to. I’m going to focus on the task at hand, and I’d like you to do that, too.

In Trump’s statements today, he not only explained that he had actually meant “wouldn’t,” but he added that “he accepts the American intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election, but he denied that his campaign had colluded in the effort.” This seems to be an effort to choose #1 of those three choices of content response rather than #3.

As Roger Simon wrote back in May:

Trump…[is] his own one-man good cop/bad cop, alternately vilifying and coaxing, even buttering up, his adversaries, often at what appears to be a dizzying pace. The press is ever eager to attack him for this (as they are for everything else), but as of now, his technique seems to be working.

We’ll see if it works with Putin.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]

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