How We Can Show Validation Through Empathy

The key to validating someone effectively is being able to communicate empathetically. But what is communication, really? Essentially it is the passing of a message between a sender and a recipient. The message must be framed in a way that is understandable to the recipient. One of the key elements of communicating successfully is that the speaker must have empathy. Thus, to ensure that your words are communicated effectively, you must be empathetic, which means you must make an effort to understand the recipient and the best ways to cater your message to them.

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To continue in the spirit of practical, communicated acceptance, we will devote our final chapter to a more in-depth look at how we can show validation through empathy, both in how we express ourselves, and how we listen to the expression of others. Again, we are going a little further than validation here; it’s wonderful to convey the message “your perspective is valid,” but so much more powerful to say “your perspective is valid, and I have genuine understanding and compassion for it.”
Empathy is something we feel for someone else. Empathic communication is expressing this empathy, and it’s all about making sure the other person feels that empathy, too. In other words, the benefit of our empathy is to enrich the experience of someone else, and not just ourselves.

Empathetic Communication
Let’s look at the basics of what makes any communication empathetic, bearing in mind the three important elements of empathy already outlined in the previous chapter. Here, we’re going to look at all the ideas we’ve already covered in this book, but in a more practical way—what are the actual words we can use?
Before we dive into that, however, we need to consider a few important principles about communication in general. Firstly, we need to have a clear, proper understanding of what communication is. People are individuals, but they all exist in context to other individuals, to groups, families, and communities. We are all discrete beings, but we are necessarily connected. What connects us? Communication.
When we communicate, three essential parts are involved: the one sending the message, the one receiving the message, and the message itself. The one sending the message encodes it in a mixture of verbal and non-verbal language. This message is communicated in some form, like in writing or in speech to the recipient, who must “decode” or understand what our message is. Validation is a kind of communication, which conveys the message of acceptance. Though we don’t have enough space to dwell on the topic of communication too closely here, it’s enough to say that the effectiveness of any communication comes down to how well the speaker conveys the message to the listener.
The success of communication relies on the empathy of the speaker, the openness of the listener, and the accuracy and appropriateness of the message. This is worth repeating: communication fails if the speaker lacks empathy, the listener doesn’t want to listen, or the message is not sent in a language the listener even understands.
When we communicate, we have to imagine the person we are talking to. We have to picture who they are, what they’re thinking, what they want, what they can understand, and the barriers to their hearing us. Can you see how empathy is not just a good idea for communication, but something fundamental to it? If we are just talking in a void, with no consideration for the ears that are hearing us, we are not communicating—we are just indulging in a monologue.
Another fundamental principle is that communication is not just words. As we’ve seen, there are many ways to convey the same message, and a lot can be “said” with facial expressions, posture, voice, even things like clothing or gestures.
Empathic communication, then, requires us to think carefully about who we are when we communicate, who we are talking to, and how we are framing our message. We know that if we’re talking to a five-year-old, we explain ourselves differently than if we were talking to a fifty-year-old. We know that if we want others to accept our message, we sometimes need to soften it, massage it a little, reframe it to suit what we know are their tastes. And we also know that if we share in a completely different “language” to the person we’re addressing, we may need to change ourselves and our expression if we hope to be understood.
This is the root of empathic communication: We first understand the perspective of who we’re talking to, and then we adjust the way we talk accordingly.
Consider your own role in the communication process:
What is your communication style and how does this affect others? Is it appropriate in this context?
When it comes to communicating, what are you good at and what are your weaknesses, biases or blind spots?
If communication is already difficult, what barriers are you contributing to or maintaining?
Is the problem really about you and your message, or is it that you haven’t yet practiced listening to the other side?
What medium are you using to communicate, what language are you using, what is your tone of voice?
Finally, what are you most trying to achieve in communicating? What do you hope to get from speaking out? Are you driven by ego, the desire to help, or are you succumbing to outside pressure? Consciously or unconsciously, what are your emotional motives for talking?
If you frequently feel misunderstood, it might be a question not of the unwillingness or inability of the other person to hear you, but of your message or the way that you are personally framing it.
Once you have a proper understanding of your role in the picture, you can look at the other person’s. Here, you cannot make assumptions. You cannot guess that they know the things you know, care about what you care about, or share the same goals or even reference points for communication in the first place. Ask yourself:
Who are they? What do they value and why?
What is their communication style and how might this interact with yours?
What about them might prevent them from truly hearing you? How can you frame things in their “language”?
Put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they think of the message you’re sharing.
What do they want; what is driving them?
What is their history and context, and how does it differ from yours? What are they familiar and unfamiliar with?
What assumptions and expectations of you might they hold?
Looking at both points of view, you can start to see potential barriers to understanding, limitations or disagreements. And this leads you to consider the final part of the puzzle: the message itself and how it can be crafted for maximum effectiveness.
What is at the heart of what you’re trying to say? Why are you saying it?
What is the best format for this message? Does the medium match the message?
How long and how detailed should this message be?
What tone would suit it best? Intense and direct? Gentle? Playful and irreverent? Confiding? Neutral and professional?
What kind of language will be most effective—jargon or slang? Logical or emotional? Direct or suggestive? Would it work best presented as a narrative, a debate, a defense, a neutral report?
Should it be written or spoken? Shared digitally? Can images or metaphors help?
What are the possibilities for misunderstanding and how could you avoid them?
So many people think that communication comes down to what you say. But as you can see, it’s also about who is saying it, and who is hearing it.

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