(In)Validating Responses

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Improve Your People Skills is a book of action that allows you to truly understand others and speak their language, no matter what it is. It will fundamentally change your approach to others and you’ll instantly understand where you’ve gone wrong. Get the audiobook on Audible or Amazon.

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Episode Transcript

In the first example above, Partner 2’s responses are inappropriate because they derail Partner 1’s legitimate emotions. Partner 2 doesn’t want to spend time focusing on Partner 1 for whatever reason—they just don’t want to deal with them. So Partner 2’s ill-mannered, terse, and mean reaction makes a bad situation worse.

But not all such responses are meant in a bad way—one can also, unsuspectingly, invalidate someone’s feelings with good intentions. Some of the more innocuous responses we give to someone’s emotional tumult can actually hurt them without us realizing what’s going on. This is most likely what most of us are doing when we think we’re validating; in fact, we’re making the situation worse.

For example, when consoling someone over a situation that makes them nervous or apprehensive, one might say something like “Don’t worry about it” or “You shouldn’t feel that way.” And they might say it in a comforting tone to make them feel better. They mean well.

But such responses are actually invalidating. They are worried about their situation; they already feel that way. Telling someone they’re not acting in the optimal way negates their entitlement to their own feelings. Even if you’re making that remark out of kindness, your partner may receive it as invalidation of their perfectly normal feelings. It’s simply unhelpful to hear, similar to telling someone, “Hey, just grow taller.”

An alternative response that successfully validates the other partner might be “I can sense that you’re worried about this situation.” This response assures the partner that their concerns are real and that their presence is rightful. Remember, your goal is to identify emotions and then justify them—nothing more.

Another invalidating and unhelpful response is “I’m sorry you feel that way.” You might think the phrase “I’m sorry” is a form of empathy. And in a way it can be. But it can also be interpreted as an empty sentiment. If someone’s lost their job, been evicted, come down with a debilitating disease, or suffered some other awful injury or fate, “I’m sorry” doesn’t quite cut it. By saying you’re sorry someone is undergoing emotional turmoil—that they “feel that way”—you’re also suggesting that there’s a way they should feel but they’re not. Whether they should feel a certain way is irrelevant because they do feel that way.

A more validating option would be “I can understand why you’re feeling this way—I think anyone else would too.” Explaining that they have a right to be uneasy and that such feelings are normal help relax their tension and produce a bond with the rest of the world: they wouldn’t be alone in feeling this way. Even if you think you wouldn’t feel the exact way they feel, it’s important to establish that others would. (Besides, you might not really know if you wouldn’t feel that way anyway—it probably hasn’t happened to you yet.)

Likewise, responses like “At least it’s not like…” or “It could be worse” imply that your partner’s concerns are illogical or unfounded. Emotions are never logical, but they are real. Maybe the issue can be worse, but not right in someone’s subjective sense of reality. Objective comparisons to more dire situations serve to put the worrier “in their place,” even if they’re meant to make the partner feel less bad in the short term. But they’re just friendlier forms of marginalization. The judgment as to whether someone’s situation can or can’t be worse belongs to the person who’s feeling the emotions.

In this situation, a proper validating response would make the listener feel that they’re being taken seriously: “You’ve really been through a lot” or “Tell me more about what you’re feeling.” These responses acknowledge the weight of the other person’s issues, reassuring them that you’re willing to take their worries seriously and don’t want to minimize how bad they feel.

Outright rejections are not just invalidations but straight-up reproaches: “I’m not having this discussion!” This is invalidating because it directly cuts off communication and even further says that the other person’s concerns are unworthy. By saying this, the respondent imposes a limit on communications—obviously there are some subjects that they’re unwilling to discuss with you when a true friend or partner wouldn’t have any hands-off topics whatsoever.

A better response is “Would you like some help working through this problem?” or (again) “Tell me more about what you’re feeling.” This helps the partner feel like they have if not a total solution, then at least an open path to finding a better result.

If it sounds like I’m suggesting you walk on eggshells when dealing with other people’s feelings and one of these responses slips out, don’t. You will make one of those responses again when you’re done with this book. So will I, to be honest, because you and I both mean well. But be aware that those responses are invalidations that should be followed up as quickly as possible with validating statements. Remember that you’re trying to form a connection and make communication flow freely. That will make the pivot easier to make.

Six Steps of Validation

Learning the six steps of validation as outlined by Kate Thieda might be a prudent place to start for those of us who truly like breaking down things into steps. When your friend or loved one is in a vulnerable state and is reaching out, these are the stages and the order you should go through to effectively hear and communicate with them.

1. Be present. First of all, show up. This is at once the easiest yet trickiest step of all. It doesn’t mean just being physically present and maintaining eye contact. Being present is actually more like two smaller steps: giving your partner your absolute attention, then being accommodating and understanding that they’re having big emotions at the moment.

The first part is physical: it just means eliminating distractions. Turn off your phone, switch off the TV, and reduce the volume of music to a hum in the background. (You could also just turn it off, but relaxing music can make the environment for communication a little easier.) It’s obviously more complicated in a public place—if it’s easy to move to a quieter spot, do so. If not, try to ward off distractions by keeping complete visual focus on your partner and leaning in to hear if you have to.

The second part means accepting your partner’s strong feelings—showing up in a sensitive way. We can react too quickly to a display of intense emotion, and it’s fair to feel initially startled when someone’s severely sad or angry. As soon as the shock recedes, though, it’s crucial to let your partner know you want to deal with them as they are. You can do this by asking an open-ended question: “Tell me what’s going on,” “What are you feeling right now?” or “Can you talk about what happened?” You should also watch and soften your visual and facial cues to let your partner know you’re open to hearing and not ready to judge.

2. Accurate reflection. After you’ve listened to your partner explain what’s happening, the next step is to show that you’re concentrating on their well-being and trying to understand what they’re feeling. That’s when you try to offer an accurate reflection of what they’ve just expressed. Reflection can take different forms, but they are all verbal statements that mirror the emotions your partner is conveying, provide context, and assure them that their feelings are comprehended. “I sense that you’re disappointed about not getting that job” or “I can hear your anxiety about having to deal with your family at Thanksgiving.”

It doesn’t have to be more than a sentence or two of acknowledgment—in fact, it shouldn’t be. It should be just enough to let your partner know that you’re hearing them, that you’ve invested your interest and concern, and want to hear them continue their story.

Also try to paraphrase their feelings in your own words instead of just repeating what they’ve said to you word for word. Simply echoing their statements verbatim only proves that you have a good short-term memory. Rephrasing it in your own language, though, shows that you’re trying to understand them on a deeper level. (Plus, parroting something back to someone could be mistaken for sarcasm, like an adult mimicking a crying child.)

3. Reading behavior and guessing what they’re feeling. For a variety of reasons, many of us are detached from and out of touch with our emotions. A big cause of this separation is having experienced invalidation in the past. Our parents may have neglected our feelings as kids (like that mimicking parent does in the last paragraph, for example). Or perhaps we’ve tried to be honest about our feelings with others before and their reactions were so harmful that now we repress our emotions and keep them buried.

That’s why the next step is guessing how your partner feels by how they’re behaving: “I’m guessing you’re feeling rejected by your parents because they’re not showing confidence in your decisions” or “It sounds to me like you’re frustrated with your coworker because they’re not keeping their commitments.”

It’s vital to frame this statement as a guess, not a firm declaration of your belief or diagnosis of the situation. Being assertive sets you in a position where you’re superior to them and you know the answers to their problems. That creates a distance, a sort of mentor-student relationship that might make them less forthcoming, not to mention resentful. This is a step beyond reflecting emotions, because you aren’t waiting for them to express themselves. You are taking the lead here and trying to lead them to an emotional resolution.

Another reason you need to present your interpretation of their feelings as a guess is, of course, that you might be wrong. In this step, being wrong is completely okay. You’re trying to figure out what their emotions are. But ultimately, they’re the ones who are feeling their emotions, and they know best what those are. If you guessed wrong, they might correct you. That, too, is completely okay. Give them a safe environment to explain themselves. If they know you’re just guessing, they’ll feel more secure in clarifying what’s happening with them.

4. Understand their behavior in the context of their lives. This step depends on your having knowledge of your partner’s past history and general makeup—and if you’ve been close for a long time, you should know that history reasonably well. All the reactions we have now are the product of events and experiences that we had in the past, as well as the way we’re biologically constructed. In this validation step, you express a connection with their behavior by understanding how the past has shaped their actions and feelings.

For example, let’s say your friend was hit by a car while he or she was riding their bike as a child. The injuries weren’t serious but the event was understandably traumatic. Particularly since it happened when they were very young and impressionable, they may feel fearful about getting on a bike or crossing the street in heavy traffic.

That’s a somewhat simple example in which everyone turned out relatively okay in the end (though it sucked at the time). But be aware there are many more serious and painful experiences for your partner that may be at play. They may have endured abuse, suffered from the early death of their parents, seen terrible violence in wartime or combat, or some other intense tragedy. You should tread with a little care in these instances—and your response should reflect that care. “Knowing how you lost your mother at an early age, I think I understand why you’re afraid of abandonment.” “I imagine you can’t easily trust someone after being in that abusive relationship.”

5. Normalize or affirm their emotional reactions. When something happens that causes a big reaction in us, it’s a unique and new event—it’s not a normal occurrence. It causes us to feel something we don’t feel in the usual course of our lives. But it’s important to validate that. Although the situation isn’t normal, our partner’s emotional reactions to that unusual situation are entirely normal.

For example, getting fired from a job isn’t a small deal. It’s a rare happening that can cause a lot of extreme stress and trauma. Someone who just got fired may be feeling anxious and worried for their future—and it’s very important for them to know that anxiety and worry are completely proper things to feel. “If I just got laid off, I’d feel nervous about the future too.” Your partner must understand that their reactions are not bizarre or wrong; they need to feel that others would feel the same way if they were going through it.

However, when affirming their feelings as normal, it’s important to not say something like “You’ll be fine” or “It’s gonna be okay.” Those statements, well-intended as they are, actually invalidate your partner’s feelings by effectively ending the discussion, negating the effect of their hard feelings. You actually don’t know if it’s going to be fine. Even if your historical experiences with those feelings have turned out to be okay, that doesn’t mean theirs will.

A preferable option would be “I have faith in your ability to get through this”—but even that’s not completely necessary at this point. Your partner’s feelings should be center stage. And they have to know that they are. Your being able to comprehend and validate how they feel is much more important to them right now. They need to be able to complete that expression on their own without getting cut off by a nice sentiment that means well.

6. Radical genuineness. This is related to the previous stage of normalizing your partner’s feelings and goes a step further. At the end of your communication, your partner should feel that they’re a real person experiencing valid feelings and not like someone who’s crazy and incompetent. Your endgame should result in your partner feeling loved and taken seriously—that you consider them your equal and that they’re just going through an exceptionally hard time at the moment.

This might be a good time for the expression “I have faith you’ll get through this,”since it relates to their being a normal person in a challenging situation. But it’s important to establish that you believe them to be that way—that you know they’re able to solve their problems or adapt to changes, that they’re not helpless or unable to make anything right. This is the definition of radical genuineness: treating and supporting your loved one as a human being that you trust and believe in, especially when they’re down.

Relationships and friendships emerge from feelings of love, happiness, and satisfaction. But they’re preserved by shaping those sentiments into practicing validation, and that takes work and conscientiousness.

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