Throughout the years of my helping people repair relationships with their spouses, friends, parents, and children, one tool stands above the rest to heal the damage: validation.
What is validation? Validation can be defined as recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.
Why Does Validation Work?
Relationship injuries become sealed in place when one or both parties in a conflict believe that the other one refuses to accept that their opinions or experiences have any merit. Have you ever had the experience of trying to explain something to someone over and over again, only to have that person reject or dismiss what you are trying to tell them?
How does it feel to experience that?
Having this experience with someone causes a gap in the relationship, and the gap can turn into a gulf when the process is repeated or if the issue is experienced as vitally important. Having these repeated experiences with someone causes us to stop reaching out to them or telling them important things. This even happens in our closest relationships, with spouses, parents, and children.
Perhaps an argument or a conflict can be boiled down to: I refuse to acknowledge your perspective.
How Does Validation Work?
Validation works as the antidote to the invalidation, dismissal, minimization, or refusal to acknowledge important communication. It reverses this process and makes the other person believe that you really want to know them and understand them. It makes them want to tell you more, open up to you, and eventually share more and more important things with you. We all want to be listened to valued and cared about.
Why Don’t We Validate Each Other More?
Often we don’t validate each other because we believe that telling the other person that their opinions are valid is the same thing as canceling or invalidating our own opinions or agreeing with something that we don’t believe is true. It’s not the case. Acknowledging that someone else’s perspective is valid doesn’t mean that ours is not, and it doesn’t mean that we necessarily agree with it. It means communicating that the person has a reason to feel or believe the way they do, even if we don’t agree.
In close or damaged relationships, we may have to tolerate the other person’s negative emotions or beliefs about us, and maybe we don’t agree or think what they are saying about us is fair or true.
Maybe we can’t tolerate the negative feelings that brings up in us, such as guilt or anger at the ways we believe the person has hurt us. Or their opinion of us challenges a strong belief that we have about ourselves, such as I am a good and kind person, how could I have hurt you like this? That’s the hardest part. We have to be able to tolerate all of this discomfort to get to the other side. However, my repeated experience tells me that when someone believes that we are truly trying to listen to and understand them, they will be willing to listen to us.
Once both parties in a conflict feel this way, the relationship can be healed. Truly listening and understanding is the key. Don’t expect that to happen with just a few words. You really have to work on it conscientiously, with determination, and when it really happens, you can see a shift on the person’s face and a change can be felt in the air. It won’t always be easy, but it’s powerful and the discomfort can be worth it if we can bring our loved one closer, reconnect a cut-off relationship, or save a marriage.
How Do You Do It?
- Listen intently.
- Kindly communicate back to the person what you understand about their position, opinion, or perspective and ask if it’s accurate. If necessary, take the feedback and reformulate your understanding again, incorporating the new information added until they agree you have stated it accurately.
- Even if you don’t agree with the person’s conclusions, see if you can comprehend or imagine how they came to their opinion or perspective and communicate that to them. “I can see why you feel that way because …” Remember to do this with compassion, even if what they are saying is hard to hear. It is important to keep in mind that they are more likely to listen to you and accept your opinions or advice if they believe you are genuinely understanding them.
If you can’t understand or comprehend the person’s opinion or they continuously disagree with your understanding, simply tell them that you are really trying to understand but you can’t: “I’m really trying to take in what you are saying, but I can’t understand why you feel that. Can you help me?” Your kind demeanor and tone and your genuineness will carry the day if you can show that you really care about this person.
- The power move! If you can expand on this person’s perspective, communicate to them how it relates to other ideas, thoughts, or behaviors of theirs, you are hitting a home run. “Oh, now it makes sense why you never wanted to sit next to me at dinner, you were worried I was going to criticize you!” “I understand why you never felt the same way toward me since that day!”
- Fix it: Communicate that you want to fix any damage. “Now that I understand, I really want to make it better. I can’t stand what this has done to our relationship!”
- Now, share your opinion. “Would you be willing to listen to what I have been thinking about this?”
Give it a try.
Is there anyone you want to have a closer relationship with? Try offering them more validation. You don’t have to try it first with someone you have a big conflict with. Try it with a friend or your grandchild. Notice how they want to tell you more and more, as they feel like you are really taking in what they are saying. See if you can sense a change in how they feel toward you.
As you get some practice and feel more comfortable, try it in closer or more challenging relationships. Notice your own emotions as you listen to the other person, but try and stay with their experience until you sense the shift or softening in the way they feel about you and then see if you can tell the other person your feelings and thoughts.
Michael Courter is a therapist and counselor who believes in the power of personal growth, repairing relationships, and following your dreams. He can be reached at mc@CourterCounsel.com. His website is CourterCounsel.com