In this chapter, we’ll be taking a closer look at what to actually do and say when validating someone. We’ve considered a few key phrases, but validation can occur on several different levels, not all of them applicable in every context. Deciding when and how to offer validation is a skill in itself; in this chapter, we’ll look at some frameworks to help us organize our approach.
Validation as Communicating Acceptance
Psychologist Marsha Linehan proposes an interesting and useful framework we can use to help us better understand the process of validation. As we saw in the previous section, validation isn’t always appropriate or helpful, but this is often a question of degree—how far to go and what kind of validation to give.
According to Linehan, there are six progressive levels of validation, each one building on the one before it. This means if you want to offer level 5 validation, you need to have gone through levels 1 to 4 first. However, you don’t have to reach level 5—some situations will call only for some levels, without proceeding further. In certain situations, it might not be necessary or even possible to go beyond a certain level.
In any case, with this model we can see validation as a kind of communicated acceptance. Remember, acceptance is not agreement or approval (or even understanding!), but it is prioritizing emotional connection even when there is conflict or difference of opinion.
Level 1 is being present with the other person. For example, being still with them, listening closely, paying attention, nodding your head, making eye contact, or letting them know you’re there by placing a hand on their shoulder. The best way to be present with someone is to engage in “active listening.” You must give the other person non-verbal signals like those that have been mentioned, as well as verbal signals like a “yes” or “go on” intermittently. This acts as feedback for the other person and they automatically become more open and honest with you as a result. Being distracted by your phone while someone pours their heart out to you is obviously not being present, but then again, launching into insensitive “advice” and immediately sharing your opinion also removes your attention and presence from the moment.
In level 1, the biggest hurdle can be acceptance of ourselves and our emotions without judgment, so we can resist escaping into denial or justifications just to fill the silence. Some of us can be uncomfortable with intense emotions because they force us to confront our own experiences with situations similar to those the other person is facing. Even someone expressing happiness can be disconcerting to us if we’re going through a rough patch. Try not to make your own reaction the focus. Try not to steer away from the emotion being expressed. This will inspire trust and comfort in the other person.
Level 2 is practicing accurate reflection. This is when we offer a genuine response that summarizes what we’ve heard and seen. A lot of people struggle with this step because they simply don’t think they have anything valuable to offer, and it adds to the discomfort one might experience in step 1 as well. If this sounds like you, remember that you only have to show the person that you listened to them when they were talking; you need not provide any original input or insight that they missed. It can be as simple as saying, “It sounds like you’re having a hard time right now.”
The challenge here is to reflect without sounding patronizing, insincere or judgmental. Tone of voice is everything! This is especially true if you’re disagreeing with the person in this step. Remember, validation does not always mean agreement. If your friend is narrating an incident about how he feels he isn’t working as hard as other employees, you don’t have to say that it’s okay to feel that way or somehow justify his not working as hard. You can simply say, “Maybe you’re being too hard on yourself.” What matters is the authenticity of your reflection, not whether it reinforces what the other person is saying. Maybe you disagreeing will make them see that they were indeed being too hard on themselves for some reason.
Level 3 is, for want of a better word, mindreading, i.e. trying to guess the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Obviously, this can be tricky, and we all differ in our “emotional literacy” and ability to read others. On top of that, people are not always sure what they themselves feel, and may be used to expressing one thing while feeling another, or masking their true experience completely. This step is about trying to put names on possible emotions and thoughts. As you can see, it’s a natural extension of the previous step: “It sounds like you’re having a hard time right now. I wonder if you’re feeling overwhelmed by what’s happened.”
The challenge here is to remove as much of your own bias and expectation as possible, and be ready to abandon a guess if the other person tells you that’s not in fact how they feel. It can actually be invalidating to have someone else incorrectly interpret your situation—as though they haven’t heard you or have their own agenda. Use your knowledge of the other person as much as you can. Think about how they typically react to similar situations, or have responded to them in the past. It’s likely that they have the same reaction now too. Some people do or say specific things when they’re feeling various emotions. For example, some people speak in shorter sentences when they’re upset. Notice cues like these and use them to read the other person’s mind.
In level 4, we frame the person’s experience in their unique context. This doesn’t mean playing shrink and running wild with theories and assumptions, but seeing what you know about the other person as a whole. What’s happened in their history to make this current situation more understandable? How does their unique life situation play into what they’re telling you? You could acknowledge this context by saying something like, “Well, it makes sense that you would be overwhelmed by all this right now, since you’ve had so many big life changes lately.”
Level 5 entails normalizing reactions. A big part of validation is knowing that you’re not weird or wrong or bad, but having a perfectly normal and even common experience. “I’m sure anyone would feel stressed out if they had as much on their plate as you!”
Level 6, the final level, is about injecting some radical genuineness. This takes emotional acceptance deeper, and means we reach out on a personal level to the other person, emphasizing our shared human connection and experience. This is the level where you can reveal something about yourself, or become a little vulnerable—but whatever you do, it must be an authentic expression showing that you truly understand what the other person is telling you. However, you should be wary about not making the other person feel like you’ve hijacked the conversation and made it all about yourself.
As you can see, every situation will call for a different degree of validation—and it depends on your context and relationship with the person, too. Of course, you don’t have to sit there and rigidly remember the six levels when a friend comes to you for support; rather, the takeaway from this model is to think of validation on a sliding scale—read the situation and dial up your level of validation accordingly.