Empathy and validation are two very closely linked concepts. Validation is when we convey our acceptance of another person’s experiences and emotions, whereas empathy is when we see the world as they do and truly put ourselves in their shoes. One can validate without actually being empathetic and vice versa. However, when we combine the two, we get a powerful combination that can instantly uplift someone’s mood by making them feel seen and heard.
Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.
We’ll end our chapter on the trickiest part of using validation during conflict: those occasions when the other person is angry at you. Here, you need a careful strategy. It can be quite difficult to affirm someone’s negative perception of you while still wishing it weren’t true, even (especially?) when their criticism happens to be accurate.
But we can always affirm and accept other people’s perspectives, even if we find ourselves inside that perspective, and not exactly in the most flattering light! It comes down to carefully balancing validation of others with self-validation, or hearing their complaint against you with compassion and acceptance, without being a pushover or taking a dent to your self-esteem. We can show respect for others while holding our own ground. More than that, we can genuinely learn and be better people without succumbing to blame games and accusations.
It’s key to understand that validation in this circumstance actually helps you—you get over conflicts faster, and you have more chance of being seen and understood yourself. You can also use what they’ve told you to become a better person by working on areas they’ve criticized if you believe that there is any merit in their statements. It really is a win-win. If we consider people’s history, their perceptions, their personality, and so on, then their emotional reality always does make sense. And this is true even if they’re mad at you or making accusations that aren’t fair.
Remember that our goal is not to win arguments, to beat the other person, to feel superior or root out the facts. Rather, the goal is to see and be seen. So, the question becomes, how can you maintain your own boundaries and validate your position while simultaneously validating the other person’s?
This is why self-validation can make it easier to validate others—we can share the feeling of being heard, of being important, or being seen and understood. We are already united when we work together at achieving this for both of us. Here are some steps to follow that draw on the validation techniques we’ve already covered, with some additional strategies.
Step 1: Always start by listening, being present and opening your mind. Don’t retaliate or interrupt. You’ll have your chance to speak later.
Step 2: Reflect what you’ve heard by paraphrasing or asking questions. Talk about emotions here, and not factual data. Be mindful of your choice of words, tone, and body language. Any indication that you’ve taken offense will immediately make the other person defensive and potentially escalate the argument. This is especially important if the conversation is not happening face-to-face. Remember, you are seeking first to understand, before you make yourself understood. You are not sizing up the feelings they’re sharing, just appreciating what they are.
Step 3: Accept responsibility. You can validate someone’s accusations when you plainly and neutrally accept that they may be right. You don’t have to accept all of it, but be honest. You are not arguing, or defending, or finding something to accuse them of. You are just owning what rightly belongs to you. Note that you don’t have to agree with the content, but the emotion underneath it. If someone accuses you of snubbing them, you can acknowledge that you’ve been a little distracted lately without agreeing that you deliberately set out to insult them.
Step 4: Assert your own side of things. Here is the main balancing act. Calmly and neutrally assert your own boundaries (if necessary) and try to share what your experience has been. Beware, though, that this will only be heard if the other person feels that you’ve already acknowledged their side. Use non-confrontational, “I”-focused language and avoid explanations that sound like excuses or arguments. Here, you are simply sharing your own emotional reality—which is also valid. You may need to go through steps 1 to 4 a few times before you reach a resolution.
Step 5: If it feels right, close off the argument with more validation. Use “we” language to emphasize that it is “us versus the problem, rather than me versus you.” Thank the person for sharing their concerns with you, and for listening to you in return. Even conflict can be useful if it strengthens connections between people.
Now, granted, all of this can sound a little too good to be true. Arguments can sometimes go sour even if you do your best to validate. And sometimes, issues need more than one discussion to be properly hashed out. You might find that people’s anger makes them unable to hear you or offer much compassion, especially if they feel wronged by you. They may reject any attempt you make to reconcile or discuss, and seem only to want to make you feel bad in retaliation.
In this case, avoid the temptation to turn things around and get angry at them. Instead, own your responsibilities quickly and happily, assert your boundaries, and move on. When we practice validation and self-validation together, we can always balance respect and compassion for ourselves with the same for others.
Empathy: Beyond Validation
If you keep butting heads with someone in your workplace, you can eventually reach a point where you say to one another, “Look, we don’t agree, but that’s fine. I see where you’re coming from, and to some extent it makes sense to me. I don’t like your opinion, but I do get it.” That would be satisfactory, and you would probably get along well enough in the office to move past your differences with respect and tact. Nobody would expect you to have a rich and deep understanding of your colleague’s inner world and respect it on a human level—in fact, it would be a little weird! It’s simply enough to be civil.
I’m sure you can see, however, that “agreeing to disagree” wouldn’t work nearly as well in, say, a marriage or the relationship between parent and child. Can you imagine a husband saying to his wife in couples’ counselling, “Hey, whatever, you do you”? Probably not! This is because, while validation is great, it doesn’t necessarily reach the level of genuine empathy. And it’s genuine empathy that’s essential in close, personal relationships.
We’ve seen that validation differs from empathy. With validation, we recognize that another person’s experience is inherently valid. With empathy, though, we feel that world for ourselves, from the inside out. Let’s take a closer look.
Validation vis-a-vis Empathy
What is empathy? When we are aware of and can relate to someone’s emotional reality, we are empathetic. We can practice validation and respect even when we don’t quite understand the emotions of the person in front of us. So, it is possible to validate someone’s experience without necessarily having empathy for it. However, when we have empathy, it’s much easier to validate other people, and indeed, the concepts do overlap.
Validation is to acknowledge the validity of the inner world of another person, whereas with empathy we enter into that world.
With empathy, we understand people beyond the intellectual. We see them as they really are, rather than as we are, or as we wish them to be. We can see and know their suffering, because we, too, have suffered. We can hear them and understand their point of view as they themselves see it. Empathy and compassion are very close—because if we know how someone feels, we almost certainly regard them with kindness.
Empathy can take a few different forms, and focus either on cognitive empathy (understanding someone else’s thoughts and intellectual world), or emotional empathy (understanding their feelings). But empathy in general is used to talk about any sensation we have where we can set aside our own perspective and priorities, and see into another person’s. With empathy, we look at others and hold compassionate feelings for the fact that their experience is so totally different from ours, and yet still worthy of love and respect.
With validation, we let the other person know that their world makes sense to us, that their experience is understandable and their feelings are valid. Empathy requires sinking deeply into those feelings and experiences, to see what they’re like from that person’s point of view.
Now, the point here is not to dwell on all the minute differences and similarities between these obviously related ideas. The goal is to see that they are distinct, and can be used to different effect in different situations and with different people. For example:
“I’m really upset that I didn’t pass my driver’s test.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. It makes sense you’d be upset, I know how hard you studied for it!” (This response shows validation—“your feeling makes sense”—yet there isn’t necessarily any empathy in it.)
“I’m really upset that I didn’t pass my driver’s test.”
“I failed my test too. I didn’t cry about it though, I just booked to take it again, no big deal.” (This response shows empathy but not much validation.)
“I’m really upset that I didn’t pass my driver’s test.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. It makes sense you’d be upset, I know how hard you studied for it! I failed my test the first time too, and it sucked, so I get it.” (This response shows validation and empathy, because a shared connection is made.)
As mentioned, the best response will depend heavily on the person you’re talking to, your relationship with them, what they really need from you, and the topic at hand. It’s hard to imagine any situation where validation might not be appreciated; however, validation + empathy is typically more appropriate in closer personal relationships.
What about empathy on its own? Well, imagine sharing some devastating news with someone, who proceeds to be as devastated as you, since it reminds them of having to deal with the same thing. You might feel the other person’s empathy (they know how you feel) without strictly feeling validated (i.e. that the response is understandable and valid).
Most of us want to be empathetic people, but good intentions are not always enough. Fortunately, it’s always possible to cultivate empathy in yourself, and practice definitely makes perfect. There are many resources and models out there, but when it comes down to it, empathy is pretty simple in practice. To empathize, we need to be open-minded and accepting enough to enter into someone else’s world, and we must be able to communicate our acceptance of this world to them.
Using this definition, there are three key parts we can focus on to make sure we’re doing our best to empathize:
- We need to be open-minded, receptive and accepting
- So that we can enter into another person’s world
- And then communicate this understanding and acceptance to them.
Empathy won’t quite be complete unless it contains all three elements, so it’s worth trying to hit each note when you’re having a conversation with someone and want to go beyond validation. Let’s look closer.
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