When I am working with families or individuals who are experiencing relationship struggles, there is one essential skill that I try to get them to master as soon as possible: validation.
Get this one thing right, and your relationships will grow stronger. In a study which has become a classic, validation was a key tool in primary care doctors who had no malpractice claims. Miss the mark, and the people around you will struggle- the experience of invalidation creates major increases in psychological and physiological distress.
Better yet- learn how to validate yourself and others and you gain confidence and great relationships!
When we are young, we look to the people around us to reflect our emotions and experiences. When this happens, we feel that our experience is real and worthy, and start to develop greater emotional resilience. Simple example: worrying about that loud thunderstorm- if your parent tells you to get over it without being willing to hear you out, you are likely to feel greater internal fear and less safe in the relationship with your parent- they can’t be trusted to hear me.
Over enough time, we start to doubt our interpretations of events. We call our friends and ask if we should feel mad or sad about that thing that happened at work, and then only accept our feelings about it when we have a friend that agrees we should feel that particular way. We might stick with the friends who tend to agree with our interpretations, but we still rely on their lens to trust our own feelings. This pattern persists until something causes it to shift- either therapy, personal growth, or enough experience with self-validation that helps us to develop internal trust.
How do you know if someone needs your validation? If you are in a relationship with them, then they need it. There is nothing more powerful than letting someone you care about know that you are willing to see and hear their experiences.
Hack Your Relationship with These 3 Validation Tips
1. Validation Doesn’t Equal Agreement
We learn in therapy school that it is important to “listen without trying to solve” which means that you need to hear a person well before you even begin to think about what their next move might be. You may not agree with the context of their issue or their hypothesized solution, but what matters most here is simply being willing to let them know that you hear what they are saying or expressing.
2. Validate Only the Valid
Work really hard to avoid statements like, “I know just how you feel,” or “I can tell you’re really mad/sad/scared.” We really do not know what someone’s internal experience is like, even if we have walked a mile in similar shoes. For example, every divorce is different and every ex-partner has their own different issues. Comparing notes about distresses can actually leave people feeling less secure in their feelings. Focus on what they are saying and the things that can be observed (tears, gritted teeth, clenched fists) rather than your guess at their internal state. Sidebar- being a person who struggles with “resting bitch face,” I can tell you how irritating it is to be accused of being mad when I am feeling anything but mad.
3. Practice Non-Judgment
Nothing shuts down relational connection more than judging a person. The other tricky piece here is that when we are judgmental of others, we tend to be horrifically judgmental of ourselves as well. Judgment, inside or outside, is invalidating every time. Funny thing is that we often think that the harder we are on ourselves or others, the better that they (or we) will do, but that NEVER works. When we mentally or emotionally shred ourselves or others, we tend to be less effective and less capable of doing the things we need to do.
Want to know what this looks like from a parenting perspective? Check out this great article from Dr. Heidi Limbrunner.