04/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama/GOP Meeting: Process Notes

Obama wasn't just presidential during his meeting with GOP (that comes easy to this fellow and is hardly news), he was a group-therapist-in-chief. That's the news.

Cliff Notes on Concept of "Process"

Walk into just about any practicing psychologist's office and there is a pretty good chance that you will see Irvin Yalom's brick-sized book on Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. Yalom's book isn't just a quintessential manual for group therapy, it is a sourcebook on the elusive concept of "process."

Here's what Yalom says about process: "The single most important point I make in this entire book: the here-and-now focus, to be effective, consists of two symbiotic tiers... The first tier is an experiencing one: the [group] members live in the here-and-now; they develop strong feelings toward the other group members... These here-and-now feelings become the major discourse of the group. The thrust is ahistorical: the immediate events of the meeting take precedence over events both in the current outside life and in the distant past of the members... But the here-and-now focus rapidly reaches the limits of its usefulness without the second tier, which is the illumination of process."

Now, let me unpack this riveting gem: a) there are relationships, b) relationships must be discussed, c) before relationships are discussed, there needs to be a discussion of discussion itself. A discussion of discussion is what is known as "process" or meta-communication. Let's listen to Yalom one more time as he fine-tunes the definition of "process." "It is useful to contrast process and content. Imagine two individuals in a discussion. The content of that discussion consists of the explicit words spoken, the substantive issues, the arguments advanced. The process is an altogether different matter.... Therapists who are process-oriented are concerned not primarily with the verbal content of a client's utterance, but with the "how" and the "why" of that utterance."

Content Notes on Obama/GOP meeting

I got this particular dose of news from . First, I watched the video. Then, I read the write-up. I walked away with two different stories. As a psychologist, watching this meeting, I was impressed with the fact that Obama made process comments. Process comments are rare in politics. They are too immediate, too potentially volatile, too exposing of the interaction between the parties involved. Much of what passes for politics nowadays is talking-point sloganeering. Rarely, there is a bit of discussion. And almost never is there a discussion of a discussion. Sure, both parties frequently invite each other to talk and talk about the need to overcome partisanship. But an announcement of collaborative talks is not the same as the here-and-now illumination of the actual discussion process.

My guess is that I am losing you right about now, so let me toss in an example. Some guy in the audience (I don't tend to keep track of these things) asks Obama a five-minute long question. Part one of the question is a recitation of his talking points. Part two is the question itself. Obama nails him down with a process comment. He (Obama) basically says: listen to yourself talk, you are running for re-election rather than asking questions, if we keep advertising ourselves like that we'll never get our collaborative work done. Now, that's action. A little heavy handed for a group therapist but -- as you can see -- the immediacy is palpable.

CNN described this "tense but civil." Indeed, processing the immediacy of interaction is tense. In the world of psychology there are basically two types of therapists -- those who can't stand this kind of tension and avoid it and those who love this tension of immediacy and thrive on process, process-seekers, so to say. Those who avoid tension tend to do canned, protocol-driven therapy. Those who thrive on process bemoan the advent of empirically-validated treatments (because, like bleach, they sterilize the process out of therapy). But I am being tangential (which is by the way a process-type self-observation).

To sum up, as I watched the video on CNN, I saw Obama venturing into the raw delicacies of partisanship in the most direct and poignant ways -- like a windshield of a speeding car he kept arresting those pesky talking point-bugs in mid-flight. It was a process "steel cage fight." As I read CNN's coverage I saw nothing but content summary. The real story -- as I see it -- isn't what was said and by whom but what was said about how people are talking. The real story was the emphasis on process rather than content.

Process Note to the Reading Politician

I don't know you personally so I apologize in advance for being presumptuous -- perhaps, you are the rare exception to the rule. But if you are not, then, on some level this will probably hit home. I realize that you, like all of us, are scared to lose your spot under the sun. So, every time you open your mouth in front of a mike or a camera you regurgitate your talking points in some kind of reflexive habit of advertizing your loyalty to your voting base. With a mouthful of clichés, you keep running a nonstop reelection campaign. We didn't elect you to run to reelect, we elected you to run the country. We didn't elect you to run from reality but to help us manage it. Stop running, slow down and do your job. Sure, it's scary: god forbid you'll lose your political office and have to go back to whatever job that you had that you apparently didn't like enough since you left it for politics. As enviable of an insecurity as this is, any insecurity sucks. So, there: some validation for you. But, as our group-therapist-in-chief put it, American people want you to focus on their job security, not your job security. That is if you want to get reelected...