“I think you might be jealous, Mom” was something my 8-year-old said to me after listening to my complaints about work. His comment stopped me dead in my tracks – although I didn’t want to admit it, he was right! It felt like such a relief to have what I was feeling named and understood, especially in the way he shared it, like “I’ve been there, I know that feeling!” This story is a favourite memory of mine about the power and ease of validation.
Validation is the acknowledgement that a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours make sense at that moment, given the context of who the person is and their history. When done well, it ranges from surface acknowledgement to show we understand that something is difficult to something deeper that helps the person feel seen and make sense of their own experiences. For example: “I can see you are working really long hours trying to do something new; it’s hard to be outside your comfort zone.”
To offer validation, we don’t need to have the answers or the solution – we can give up being “right.”
Validation is more than an indication that we are doing something correctly or getting a thumbs up because we’re on the right track. We are trying to convey that we “get” what the other person is going through, even if the “it” is not something we might do, agree with, or experience for ourselves. This can be an incredible asset when there is tension, intense emotions, a sense of being stuck, or resistance to any kind of change.
Here are four benefits of validation:
Reduced emotional arousal: Big emotions are accompanied by high internal activation (racing heart, tense muscles, breathing changes). As a result, our thinking shuts down. Validation of our reaction and what caused that big emotional spike can help settle high emotions quickly.
Increased trust: Trust increases when we show that we can understand someone or at least show we are trying very hard to understand them. To offer validation, we don’t need to have the answers or the solution – we can give up being “right.” Validation is a pause to try to see things from the other’s perspective. This increases trust in the relationship and can invite a greater depth of understanding you have for each other.
Improved connection: Would you rather be “right” or would you rather be connected? Even when we disagree with someone, if we can see the situation through their eyes, we are more likely to find some middle ground. At the very least, when we validate a thought, emotion, or action as making sense to us given how the person experienced the situation, we acknowledge that we can see where they are coming from, and we just don’t think or feel alike.
Validation does not mean approval or agreement. Even though we may “get” how the situation happened, we don’t need to act as if something is reasonable or helpful if it isn’t. There is no need to validate what does not make sense. For example, if someone spontaneously quit a much-needed job, we would focus on validating the big feelings or intense thoughts that were present, not the impulsive behaviour of quitting.
Improved self-validation: In a therapeutic relationship, validation creates safety and promotes self-understanding. I love the moment I offer a validation because it’s a chance to relay the emotion and the effect of the emotion as a means for people to learn something new about themselves. The ultimate goal is to move from “What is wrong with me?” to noticing and naming the thoughts and feelings that come up as a means of self-validation.
Validation isn’t particularly difficult, so follow these steps to validate those around you:
1. Convey understanding by being actively present: We know nonverbal communication sends strong messages, so show up with eye contact, your full attention, and a caring presence. Reflect back what you are hearing using active listening and add unspoken meaning, emotions, and thoughts you are picking up. For example, “I can hear the disappointment in your voice that you didn’t get the promotion; I know you were really excited about a possible change at work.”
2. Normalize the experience: Ask yourself as the listener, “Given your lived experience, how does it make sense that you feel, act, and think the way you do?” Depending on the answer to that question, you can possibly explore further: “What about this experience makes sense as part of the human experience?” For example, “It makes sense to me that you feel suspicious; he’s lied to you several times before.”
3. Make authentic connections: Be empathic and genuine in sharing your understanding. Own that this is your attempt to understand and it may not be correct. Treat the person as an equal and do not patronize them. We don’t reduce pain by minimizing it – it is truly validating when we have the strength to acknowledge “that feeling” because we have also felt that way: “No wonder you didn’t finish the assignment; I know I’d be too heartbroken to focus on schoolwork too.”
Given the heightened polarities we can see in our world right now, being able to validate even when we don’t agree may be the skill we all need a little more of right now. Even when there is an action, thought, or feeling that is difficult to endure or hard to understand, validation can help us seek the common ground of mutual understanding.
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