We need more than just a listening ear. As humans, we need to feel heard and understood. We need to feel accepted and appreciated. Good listeners, therefore, do more than just listen—they validate.
Validation can make a tremendous difference in your marriage or romantic relationships. Studies show that couples who learn to validate and support each other have significantly happier and longer-lasting marriages than those who do not.
Validation is as versatile as it is valuable. Effective validation can calm fear or frustration, give a boost to others’ excitement or good fortune, get others to listen to your side of the story, deepen relationships, quickly resolve arguments, and help make you an all-around more likeable human being
Comment: I’m worried about this upcoming exam . . .
Invalidating Response: Don’t be! You’ll do great. I’m sure of it.
Validating Response: I don’t blame you! This is a hard class!
Comment: This cold is so annoying! I can’t sleep, I have a hard time breathing, and my throat is killing me.
Invalidating Response: That’s unfortunate, but you’ll get over it. It could be worse—my neighbor caught the flu last year and was bedridden for almost a month!
Validating Response: Ugh, that sounds miserable. It’s so frustrating not being able to sleep when you’re sick, and I can’t stand sore throats.
Comment: I don’t want to go to school anymore. I’m so embarrassed after last night’s talent show that I don’t ever want to show my face there again!
Invalidating Response: You have nothing to be embarrassed about. You did a great job.
Validating Response: I’m sorry, honey. It’s tough getting up there in front of the whole school like that—especially when you’re performing. Is there anything specific you’re worried about?
Pretty straightforward, right?
As you can see, validation has two main elements. It 1) acknowledges a specific emotion, and 2) offers justification for feeling that emotion.
Validation is nonjudgmental. It allows the other person to feel whatever they’re feeling without labeling it as “good” or “bad.”
Invalidation (i.e. minimizing or dismissing another person’s feelings) is counter-productive. Research has shown that invalidating responses can make a difficult situation worse, even when offered with the best of intentions.
Offering validation—before or instead of offering advice or assurance—is often the best way to help. Doing so helps others let go of difficult emotions much more quickly, often allowing them to find a solution to the problem on their own. Leading with validation also increases the likelihood that others will listen to and accept your advice.
The Three Misconceptions About Validation
Misconception #1: Validation is Only for Negative Emotions
Validating positive experience is not only possible, it’s critical to developing healthy, satisfying relationships. Learning to identify and act on these opportunities can make a significant difference in your connection with others.
Misconception #2: You Can’t Validate If You Don’t Agree
If someone is distraught, angry, or concerned, validating them is your best chance at getting them to be receptive to feedback. The great thing is, you can validate someone even if you disagree with them. Learning to do so will give you a valuable tool for navigating confrontations, negotiations, disagreements, and the like.
Misconception #3: Validation is Simply Repeating What the Other Person Says
Effective validation requires empathy and emotional understanding, and therefore extends beyond simple reflective listening. We need to do more than just show others we hear the words they are speaking; we need to show them we’re connecting with the emotions they’re feeling.
Empathy is Different From Sympathy
Sympathy is a feeling of care or concern for another person, often accompanied by a wish to see them better off or happier. Sympathy is standing on the outside of a situation, looking in (e.g. “I’m sorry you’re sad.”) Empathy is stepping into the situation and feeling the emotion (e.g. “Wow, this is sad.”).
When we sympathize, we feel for someone because of his or her pain. When we empathize, we feel the pain with them. For example:
I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.
Ugh, the flu is no fun at all.
|I’m sorry you’re frustrated. I hope you figure itout.||
Ah, that’s so frustrating.
Effective validation can come only after we’ve connected with the other person and are able to understand—at least to some extent—what they are feeling.
Tips for Developing Empathy
Struggling to feel empathy for someone? While there’s no sure-fire, one-size-fits-all approach to developing it, the following tips may help
Empathy Tip #1: Get curious.
Ask yourself questions such as, “What is this person’s background? Could past issues be influencing their reaction? What if someone had done that to me? How would I feel? If I haven’t had a similar experience, have I ever felt a similar emotion?”
Empathy Tip #2: Look at them.
Take a moment to see the other person on a deeper level. Make eye contact. Recognize that they are a human being with fears, hopes, uncertainties, pain, and joy. Recognize that their life may be a lot harder than you know.
Empathy Tip #3: Imagine them as a child.
Try picturing the other person as a four-year-old version of themselves. Because showing emotion is considered a sign of weakness in many cultures, it can be difficult to empathize with adults who may be having a hard time. Picturing the other person as a young child can help remove this stigma and make it easier to feel genuine empathy.
Empathy Tip #4: Learn to identify your own emotions.
Become better at identifying others’ emotions by getting in the habit of identifying your own. Consider setting a reminder in your phone each day to check in with yourself and take inventory of how you’re feeling.
Empathy Tip #5: Quit judging your own emotions.
The next time you notice an emotion—any emotion—rising up inside you, check to see if you’re suppressing, avoiding, or accepting it. The more you practice recognizing, accepting, and validating your own emotions, the easier it will be to develop empathy for, and then validate, the emotions of others
Putting Validation Into Practice
While the concept of validation is relatively simple, knowing how to effectively implement it in your day-to-day can be a bit more difficult. The Four-Step Validation Method is a tried-and-true approach to giving validation and feedback in nearly any situation.
- Listen Empathically
- Validate the Emotion
- Offer Advice or Encouragement (if appropriate)
- Validate the Emotion Again
Step #1 Listen Empathetically
Give your full attention. If you’re distracted, let the other person know and ask to talk at a later time. When you are available to talk, close your laptop, turn off the TV, and keep your attention on the conversation at hand.
Invite them to open up. If you suspect someone wants to talk about something but isn’t comfortable initiating the conversation, try asking a simple question like, “You seem upset. What’s up?”
Be observant. As much as 70 percent of our communication is nonverbal. Pay close attention to the other person’s tone of voice and body language to better understand them.
Match their energy. If the other person is happy or excited, then smile, laugh, and share in the thrill. If they are discouraged or sad, then be respectful and speak in a softer, more compassionate manner.
Offer micro validation. Offer short comments such as “no way!”, “seriously?”, or “I’d feel that way too” to help the other person feel comfortable sharing. This lets them know you that you are listening, withholding judgment, and seeing things from their perspective.
Don’t try to fix it. Refrain from offering advice, feedback, or assurance until step 3. Avoid comments such as “at least . . . ”, “you should . . . ”, or “that’s not true.”
Step #2 Validate the Emotion
Validate their emotion. Once there’s a pause in the conversation or the other person is done sharing, validate them more fully. This is best done by 1) acknowledging the emotions they’ve expressed, and 2) offering justification for feeling those emotions.
Validate, even if you disagree. Not only is it possible to validate someone you disagree with, it’s advantageous to do so. When you validate the other person, they become significantly more likely to listen to a differing opinion or advice. Once you show that you truly hear them, they will be much more likely to hear you.
Not sure what the other person is feeling? Ask. A simple question such as “How are you feeling about all this?” or “I imagine you’re pretty upset?” is often enough to get the clarity you need to validate.
If you can relate, consider letting them know. Use phrases such as “I can relate” or “I had a similar experience” instead of “I know exactly how you feel.” Be sure to turn the focus back to them after sharing your experience.
If you can’t relate, let them know. Acknowledging that you haven’t been in someone else’s shoes and don’t know exactly how they feel can be incredibly validating.
Tell the truth. Resist the urge to lie to make someone feel better. Instead, acknowledge the truth, validate their emotions, then provide comfort and assurance in step 3.
Step #3 Offer Advice (Optional)
Offering feedback or advice is entirely optional. Perhaps someone has shared an exciting or proud moment, or perhaps you simply have no advice to give. Validation is healing in and of itself. It is not always necessary or appropriate to give advice.
Avoid giving unsolicited feedback. Just because someone is sharing a difficult experience doesn’t mean they are looking for advice. Determine whether they are open to receiving feedback by either 1) asking what they are expecting from you (e.g., “How can I help?”), or 2) asking permission to give advice (e.g., “I have a few thoughts on the matter. May I share?”).
If you do give feedback, lead with a validating statement. Even though you just offered validation in step 2, prefacing your feedback with one more validating statement will reiterate the fact that you’ve heard them and are connected with their experience.
Use “and” instead of “but.” Doing so will help you avoid inadvertently negating your validation, comments, etc.
Lead with “I” instead of “You.” Using “I” underscores the fact that you are sharing your perspective or opinion. It also lessens the likelihood that the recipient will become defensive.
Avoid Absolutes. When giving difficult feedback, replace absolute terms such as “always” and “never” with softer (and often more accurate) alternatives such as “often” or “rarely.” If you do choose to use an absolute term, lead with “I think,” “I feel,” etc. instead of “you.”
Step #4 Validate Again
Re-validate the emotion. Whether you’ve given advice in step 3 or not, work in one final bit of validation at the end of the conversation. Doing so reiterates the fact that you hear and understand the other person and ends the conversation on a positive, emotionally uplifting note.
Validate the vulnerability. Sharing personal thoughts, experiences, or emotions can be difficult, uncomfortable, and even scary. If someone opens up to you, thank them for it and validate the fact that doing so can be quite difficult.