“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” – Mother Teresa
We belong to each other. The desire to belong – to be accepted, to be understood – is primal. Humans are social mammals, and like other social mammals, the desire for connection is written into our genes. From an evolutionary perspective, our very survival relied on finding safety within a group. Harry Harlow famously quipped, “A lone monkey is a dead monkey”.
And so we are programmed at our most base level to hunger for connection. The need for connection s as real and as powerfully primed as the need for food, water, sleep and exercise. And when that need isn’t being met, we hunger for it as painfully as we would for any of our other needs.
One of the most powerful gifts we can offer another person is validation. Because validation is one of the cornerstones of acceptance and belonging. Validation is also a powerful tool for improving your relationships with others. The relationship will be better because with more validation you are going to have less debating, less conflicts, and less disagreement. You will also find that validation opens people up and helps them feel free to communicate with you.
To validate someone’s feelings is first to accept someone’s feelings.
To be clear, validation isn’t about agreeing. It isn’t about approval. It is about letting someone know that we respect their perception of things at that moment. So that they may feel heard, acknowledged, understood and accepted. When we validate someone, we allow them to safely share their feelings and thoughts. We are reassuring them that it is okay to have the feelings they have. We are demonstrating that we will still accept them after they have shared their feelings. Through validation, we acknowledge and accept a person’s unique identity and individuality. Invalidation, on the other hand, leads us to reject, ignore, or judge their feelings, and hence, their individual identity.
Sometimes validation entails listening, sometimes it is a nod or a sign of understanding, and sometimes it can be a hug or a gentle touch. Sometimes it means being patient while another person talks, and accepting when the other person is not ready to talk.
Won’t I just make them feel worse?
Sometimes people may be afraid that if they validate how someone is feeling, they will reinforce the feeling and make it stronger/worse. But research shows us that painful feelings that are expressed, acknowledged and validated by a trusted listener will diminish, not escalate. And that conversely, ignoring painful feelings (or invalidating them) will make them gain strength.
Most of us truly want to help other people, but often we don’t know how, or we try too hard and we start giving advice. Sometimes, if you just validate someone, they are able to work out their own emotional problems even faster than if you were to give them advice or instructions.
Often, the fewer words from you the better! Especially when someone needs to talk and they are both willing and able. It takes more to get some people talking than others. But once most people start, and feel safe and validated, they will continue.
Validation allows a person to release their feelings in a healthy, safe and supportive way. It also helps us get to know them better. It builds bonds of caring, support, acceptance, understanding and trust. When a person is feeling down, these bonds are sometimes all that another person needs to begin to feel better and solve their own problems.
On the other hand, when they are feeling excited and enthusiastic, validation can be used to encourage them and keep their spirits high.
By validating someone we demonstrate that we care and that their feelings matter to us– in other words, that they matter to us. By “mirroring” someone’s feelings, we show them that we are in tune with them. We feel connected with them and they feel connected with us.
What does validation look like?
Here are some basic steps to emotional validation:
- Offering to listen (using active listening skills)
- Identifying the feelings
- Acknowledging the other person’s feelings
- Helping them label the feelings
- Being there for them; remaining present, both physically and emotionally
- Being patient
- Remaining accepting and non-judgmental
Another way of thinking of it in terms of simple dos and don’ts is:
First accept the feelings, then address the behavior.
Do not deny their perception.
Do not argue with their experience.
Do not disown their feelings.
Give it a go!
Here are some simple examples of phrases you might use to validate someone when they talking to you and they are feeling upset, hurt, sad etc. (Note: validation of positive emotions is also important)
I hear you.
That’s not good.
That’s no fun.
That is sad.
That must really hurt.
Wow, that’s a lot to deal with, I would feel the same way.
I would be (sad/hurt/angry/jealous) too
That sounds discouraging.
That sounds like it would really hurt.
I know what you mean.
I would feel the same way.
I can understand how you feel.
It sounds like you are really feeling ____.
It sounds like _____ is really important to you.
For some people, all you need to do is use these short, validating comments and they will continue to talk. For others, you might encourage them to keep talking with short questions. If you find yourself in a position of needing to lead the conversation you might try:
I can see that you are really upset.
You look pretty sad.
You seem a little worried, troubled, scared, etc.
Would you like to talk about it?
That really bothered you, didn’t it?
How did you feel when ______?
Is there something you want to talk about?
How about we sit down and have a chat about ____?
If the person you are speaking with is having trouble speaking, you can encourage them to release their feelings by trying these phrases:
What bothers you the most about it?
How strongly are you feeling that (on a scale of 0-10)?
How come? How so? How’s that?
So you really felt ______? Is that close?
So what bothered you was that _____?
What else bothered you?
How else did you feel?
Tell me more about _____?
What would help you feel better?
In summary, the desire for acceptance and belonging is a primal human need, as real as hunger or thirst. Whether the person you are speaking with is your partner, your mother, your friend or your child, validation is an important and powerful tool we can use to feed that hunger for belonging.