Validation is the little-recognized glue than creates and mends relationships. After all, we live in our own selves all day, every day. Understanding someone else’s journey takes effort, in part because clearing the decks of our own experiences is so challenging. But the rewards of validation are great.
Validation builds trust, opens previously clogged channels of communication, and creates relationship between the most unlikely pairs.
The primary myth about validation is that by affirming someone else, you are signing off on their beliefs. Validation means selling out your position for the sake of peace and a couple of feel-good moments. Not true. Affirmation of a person is not ratifying their belief structure. Rather it is acknowledging and accepting that their experience is worth taking the time to understand. Validation is offering someone else a chance to fully express themselves. It is possessing the maturity to acknowledge that while two people may have attended one event, the effects of that one event can vary quite widely between them.
Validation is not about intellectual debate. Nor is it about trying to score points. Affirmation of another is a personal act quite apart from argument. Most couples I know fight about the same thing. “He or she never listens to me” is where too many marital fights end up. If that is the case, couldn’t it be solved by giving each other not just the chance to talk, but about filling their need to be heard?
Here I will admit to you one of my pet peeves. I hate it when people act disgusted by another’s food choices. While I may fancy myself a bit of a foodie, that does not give me the right to judge someone else’s preferences. I personally do not like eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, or Brussel sprouts. Nor do I care for Taco Bell. However, when people eat them, I quite understand that their experience of these foods is different than mine. They may in fact, really enjoy them. Incomprehensible, but there you go.
Validation works the same way. Acknowledging and supporting the feelings of another does not, in fact, mean that you feel the same way. In some cases, you may be offended by their beliefs. You do not have a right, however, to dismiss them as a person just because you do not share worldviews.
The Keys to Validation:
- Listen, listen, listen. Sometimes I think the hardest skill to acquire is listening. I’m a bit dissociative still so I fade in and out if I am not careful. But listening deeply to another person is a deliberate act of love. In order to really listen, you have to drop your own agenda. If you are listing in your mind your responses, you are not listening. If you are thinking about how wrong this person is, you are not listening.
In fact, listening requires that you only be thinking about what they are saying. The only thing going on in your mind is the attempt to clearly comprehend what it is the other person is trying to say. So let me ask you. Have you ever listened to anyone that purely? An even more painful question. Has anyone ever accorded you that honor of listening to you with their undivided attention?
- Bracketing. In the words of Scott Peck, bracketing is the “temporary giving up or setting aside of one’s own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker’s world from the inside, stepping inside his or her shoes.” This is the exercise of empathy, to enter for a moment the painful world of another. It requires humility to leave oneself behind, even for a moment, in order to enter into the interests of another. But this is the redemptive work of love, sacrificing one’s own reality in order to experience the reality of another.
- Accept their self-disclosures. When a loved one opens up about their fears or their hurts, we are sometimes tempted to fix them or reframe them. The reason for this is that their feelings make us uncomfortable. The worst example I know is a standby at funerals. People will say to the grieving that God wanted another angel in Heaven. Well, the God I know and love doesn’t kill people just to be with them in Heaven. He has no problem being with them on earth.
If someone’s confessions make you uncomfortable, probably you have felt the same thing. Don’t say, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Who are you to tell someone what they should or shouldn’t feel? Let them be who they are. Sometimes that is the best validation of all, allowing someone to drop their mask and just be sad or fearful or even mad at the world in front of you. No judgment, just them expressing their truth at that moment.
- Be a mirror. Reflecting back to them their exact words accomplishes two things. One, you show them you really hear them. Two, they hear themselves. I remember one young woman telling me, tears streaming down her face, “If I have to break up with my boyfriend, I will die!” Now she really wanted to break up with this dude but feared the inevitable pain on both their parts.
I looked at her and said in agreement, “If you have to break up with him, you will die.” I said it in all seriousness. I could tell it was how she felt.
It sounded silly to her when putting that way right back to her. She laughed and then began the harder work of self-expression. She felt guilty about going out with him in the first place. She was embarrassed because people would think she was fickle. I could have told her that but I wanted to give her the gift of just listening and reflecting. I’m pretty sure she already knew it, but once she found I was safe, she became brave enough to tell herself the truth with me present.
- Acknowledge their suffering. I find that when my husband acknowledges my emotional or physical pain, it diminishes. When we first married, if I complained about a physical issue, his response was a lecture on maintaining good health. That usually led to a fight. Now he is so good about responding in a loving way. “I can tell it hurts,” he will say. Or if it is an emotional issue, he will hug me and say, “You have every right to feel sad about this.”
I make it a practice now as often as I can to acknowledge the suffering of others, whether it is disappointment or grief, anger or rejection. Emotions are better managed if they are admitted to and affirmed. Mere observation works most of the time. Sentences
like ‘I can tell you are outraged’ and ‘You seem really upset about this’ work wonders.
The bottom line of validation is the concept of honor. The best definition of honor I have heard is ‘valuing people over things’. Much of our conversation does not require intense listening, much less the work of validation. However, to give someone the time and attention needed to validate the people in your life is to put aside things like deadlines, work schedules, tasks, and all the needful things of a busy day.
To affirm another for who they are and where they are in their journey is to affirm our common humanity. We all need approval, to be seen for who we are and accepted. To love one another as we love ourselves is not easy, but in this act, we plant the seeds of real intimacy. Lastly, validation should start with our children. Teach them to express themselves by practicing the art of listening to them.
If our children skin their knee and we tell them it doesn’t hurt or that it isn’t that bad, we teach them to hide their feelings. Instead, simple observation and a little empathy work much better. “Ouch! That looks like it stings. Let’s go take care of your knee,” give them context for their pain, affirmation of what they feel, and acknowledgment of their body. This way we raise adults who are empathetic to one another. Life is without a doubt the hardest venture to embark upon. Why not make it easier on all of us with a little validation?