As a couples therapist I’m often in the position of gently guiding my clients to offer more empathy, validation, and comfort to each other. (I’m also gently guiding them to reach more vulnerably for this comfort, but that’s a different blog post.) Although I validate my clients with warm understanding, it doesn’t hit at the same level as when someone they deeply love shows them that they get it and that they care. We crave validation most from the people we love.
Validation is a vital key for unlocking stuck places in communication and de-escalating conflict. But some of us – many of us, even – simply don’t know how to do it. We weren’t offered validation ourselves growing up, we have convinced ourselves we don’t need it (and that others shouldn’t either), or we weren’t socialized by our community or culture to learn this relational skill.
So here I am to break it down for you, to give you a starting place from which to begin practicing how to validate in a way that is meaningful and connecting – and hang in there, it may take some time to fully find your validating voice.
First, what is validation exactly? We hear all about it in marriage and parenting books these days. Even from business coaches. Some of us also hear it from our partners, “Why can’t you just validate me?!”
According to the dictionary, validation is the “recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.”
Validation is very powerful, because when it’s offered sincerely and especially by someone who cares about us, it has the ability to calm our limbic brain. Our limbic brain is the part of our brain that pushes us into fight, flight, or freeze – the part of our brain that tries to protect us. We need our limbic brain! But sometimes it can really get in the way of accessing our problem-solving or our support system. Here comes loving validation to save the day! To help calm our brains and connect us to the very resource of a loving partner when we most need it.
That’s cool! So how do I do that?
Start off with Presence–
In our modern age offering someone true presence is a rare gift. Taking your phone and not just turning it over, but putting it away, and offering your undivided attention will do wonders to set the stage for validation. Look your person in their face and eyes.
Now that they’ve got your full attention, really listen to the words they are sharing. Allow yourself to listen with an hear for what’s hurting, scary, overwhelming, or sad. Imagine how, knowing them the way you do, something about what they’re sharing makes sense.
Ask questions – but be careful these questions aren’t laced with judgment (“Well, why did you do that?”) or problem-solving (“This is what you need to do …”). Instead show genuine interest for more details or a desire to better understand.
Show you get it (or at least part of it) –
This is an important one, folks! Showing you get it doesn’t mean you agree or would feel the same way if it were you. It also doesn’t mean agreeing you’re the bad guy. It certainly doesn’t mean agreeing with false statements or misconceptions. It means caring that this is your person’s emotional world right now. Showing that you get it means showing them that you understand what their emotional experience or truth is.
This is not the time to offer advice. Again, show that you get it. Try to say if from your heart. This becomes much easier when we allow our own vulnerability to be touched – our own memory of fear, sadness, or anger as a way to connect with what’s happening for our person – to put ourselves in their shoes.
If you’re really struggling, consider finding a part of the experience to validate rather than the whole thing.
Showing that you get it may sound like: “I know that must be so hard.” “I can’t believe that happened to you!” “Of course you feel this way.” “Given what you’ve been through before, this makes so much sense.” “I’m not sure what to say right now, but I know you’re hurting and I really care.”
Lastly, show you care–
Offer physical displays of comforting affection, or verbal reassurance such as “I’m here for you,” “I believe in you,” “We’ll get through this together.”
In many ways, validation is saying: The vulnerable in me connects with the vulnerable in you. You make sense. You are not alone.
It’s amazing how powerfully these steps can help our person feel calmer and closer. When we’re calmer and closer, things like compromise and problem-solving become much, much easier.
Remember, not all struggles are solvable. But they’re more bearable when someone gets it and someone cares.
Be kind to yourselves and each other,
Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, GA, where she works with couples and individuals. She is certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with a passion for helping people love and feel loved.