A funny thing happens when we routinely practice validation: we start to realize that disagreement is not really such a big problem. It is possible to disagree with someone without being disagreeable, and you can still actively validate others and yourself even as you actively question their viewpoints. Though this all sounds nice in theory, how do we actually get it done in real life?
Using validation can be difficult in a world that seems built on division and hostility. It seems that today you can’t take a step in any direction before seeing difference of opinion leading to hostility and vicious conflict. But, whoever we are, we can always lead by example and practice civility.
Three Rules for respectful, tactful disagreement
• Start by trying to understand the other person’s point of view before trying to get them to understand yours. Begin interaction with an open mind, and actively set aside expectations, biases and prejudices. Before you get defensive and shut down, really listen to what the other person is saying with validation, and without judgment.
• Focus on people, not ideas. People are not their views. When you disagree, you disagree with an idea or concept, and not with the person who holds that idea. Beliefs can change; but people are always worthy of respect and understanding. Another way of stating this is that relationships are almost always more important than winning arguments. It is perfectly possible to hold a person in high regard while disagreeing with what they think.
• Look for commonalities. People always have more in common than they first think. Even if you differ, aren’t you both human beings, and don’t you both share in the fundamental experiences of life? Instead of choosing to see others as enemies, deliberately find ways to connect with them in friendship and understanding. You could even bond over the fact that you both are sharing a frustrating disagreement!
When people look at others primarily in terms of the content of their thoughts and opinions, they can lose sight of them as people, who have an inner world and an emotional reality that is as real and as valid as their own. So, instead of seeing people as people, we see them as members of different races or ethnicities, nationalities, political parties, demographics, generations or religious groups. And when we see them that way, we can’t help but conceive of ourselves the same way, in opposition to them. We start to frame things in terms of “us vs. them” and completely forget that people have arrived at their worldviews and perspectives in exactly the same way as we have.
Many people like to think of themselves as compassionate, empathetic souls who are amazingly open-minded…but of course the catch is that they only feel they should behave this way to others who already agree with them! In the wake of the Covid-19 fallout and the worsening divisions all around the world, it’s easier than ever to assume that those who disagree with us are not only wrong, but are completely, utterly contemptible and more or less deserve to die.
Closer to home, individuals can find that global political tensions and controversies filter into their personal relationships. A couple might have a very serious fight about the #MeToo movement, or a family might feel they can’t eat dinner at the same table because it could lead to a shouting match over politics. Friends might end friendships because they disagree on climate change, or some other hot-button topic that sharply divides opinion. Does genuine validation have a place in a world so full of contention and discord?
Let’s remember that the point of validation is to provide the person we’re listening to with the sense that they are seen, heard, acknowledged and accepted. And this is something we need and crave too! Though our knee-jerk reaction to ideas we don’t like might be to resist, to get aggressive or to ignore, we always have in our power the ability to validate someone’s (and our own) emotional reality.
Changing the goal of interaction
Arguments and hostility can arise when, consciously or unconsciously, we hold the following goals in conversation:
• To be right
• To convince others to think as we do
• To feel superior
• To find out “the truth”
• To punish people who are wrong or stupid
• To defend against anyone who is attacking our beliefs
• To prove something
However, we can completely change the way we engage with others when we change our approach, and have just one goal:
• To see and be seen, to understand and be understood
The first set of goals is all about the content, whereas the second goal is simply to work at the level of individual validation and respect. When we validate others, we bypass theories and ideas and arguments, and get to the root: we connect with them as people, and communicate that their inner reality is acceptable, important, and seen.
When people argue about the big scary topics (religion, sex, politics and so on), they often get embroiled in hostility because they don’t feel seen or understood. They react defensively, and behave in ways that make it so that they can’t see or understand the other person’s point of view, either. Not being seen or appreciated can feel like a threat—one that we respond to by threatening others in the same way. It’s a vicious cycle.
Can you see how the other person has arrived at their viewpoint?
Does any part of it make sense to you?
Can you see how their core values are reflected in how they’re behaving and what they’re saying?
Are there positive things you can both agree on?
Remember, in using validation, we are not trying to see whether we agree or not, but whether we can look at someone who’s different from us and say “I see you. I understand.” If you doubt the power of doing this for others, try to imagine for a moment the effect these words might have on you when heard from someone you assumed to be your complete enemy.
Genuinely saying “I don’t agree with you, but I see where you’re coming from and can respect that” can be a powerful way to heal division and connect people. When approached this way, dialogue is possible. You can begin to ask questions to better understand the other side, and try to explain your own point of view. Again, this is not to persuade or lecture, but to aid in understanding.
Disagreements in life are unavoidable. But we always have a choice in how we respond to difference. No single perspective is “right” or better than any other, and genuine respectful conversation can widen everyone’s scope rather than narrow it. Before we move on, here are some questions to consider when you encounter friction in daily life:
• Is this problem really worth disagreeing over? Do you lose anything by letting it go?
• What are your own values and boundaries on this issue? What are your responsibilities in communicating them?
• What are your personal blind spots, biases, expectations and flaws when it comes to this issue? What could you learn?
• Is your verbal and nonverbal communication conveying acceptance?
• Are you being respectful, and have you tried to find common ground?
If you have sincerely done your best with someone you don’t agree with, then it doesn’t mean you can’t walk away when things don’t improve. One person cannot have a validating, respectful conversation all on their own—you might still need to draw a line and say, “We don’t see eye to eye on this, that’s fine, but I’m stopping the conversation here.” Don’t apologize for holding a different opinion, or asserting a boundary. You might find that sometimes, honest disagreement is the first moment of real sincerity of the whole discussion!