Validation: The Skill That Will Improve Your Relationships

Jan 23, 2023

"You don't understand me!"

"I do understand you. I just don't agree with you."

Dramatically rolling her eyes through tears, she looks at me. "She just doesn't get it. It's like she doesn't even care." The teen doesn't see the pained look of defeat on her mother's face.

That's me paraphrasing every therapy session with a 14 year old and her mom ever. (Feel free to substitute any other gender child and parent combo. They all hold).

Perhaps I'm the one being a tad dramatic here - it's not every single session... - but I want to highlight what's really underneath the conflict and what's really doing relationship damage: a lack of validation. 

From the bedroom to the boardroom and everywhere in between, successful, healthy relationships matter...and they don't happen by accident. Whether we're talking about personal or professional contexts, there are some key interpersonal skills that, as renowned experts the Drs. Gottman put it, separate the relationship masters from the disasters. Validation is one of them. 


What Is Validation?

We know that relationships are important. Whether we're talking about quality of life on a personal level or being wildly successful in a business or professional capacity, it all boils down to relationships. Being able to build and maintain strong, healthy connections is critical. 

As humans, we have a deep need to feel seen, heard, understood, appreciated, and accepted. (Even those of us who hate vulnerability or don't want to admit that we have those basic social human needs do). And your ability to make others feel seen, heard, understood, appreciated, and accepted is a skill called validation. While some people seem to acquire validation skills intuitively, (most) others have to be trained, at least to some degree. 


How to Validate Others

Returning to our angsty teen and defeated mom, there are two points I want to call out here: empty words and conflating understanding and agreement.  


Show, Don't Tell

Mom says the words, "I understand." She is literally telling her daughter that she gets it, yet her daughter doesn't feel understood. What gives? 

While the mom is trying to validate her daughter, her efforts are falling flat. It's like the keto cookies my friend Brandon tried to pass off as dessert when I asked for an after-dinner sweet treat. Technically, it was a cookie, but without sugar and flour, it was a poor proxy. Chocolate cardboard was just no substitute for the real thing. I'd have rather just not had any dessert at all.

When it comes to understanding others, show, don't tell. The trick is to demonstrate that you truly get it. Convince them that you absolutely know what they are feeling and why. 

Here's what Mom meant to say," I get it. Spending time with your friends is really important. I said no, and you don't think I have a good reason for that. It feels unfair and controlling, and that's super frustrating." How do you think that would've been received by her daughter?  

When you validate someone else, you are acknowledging how they feel, showing that you get it, and, if you want to level it up a notch, assuring them that what they are feeling makes sense considering all of the contributing factors (like their personal history and the current circumstances). Here are some more examples of validating statements: 

I can see how upset you are by this.

I understand that you're feeling overwhelmed. You've been under a tight deadline, and we're short-staffed. 

Wow! Your coworker/friend/family member/neighbor sounds really arrogant. That must be so annoying!

And my personal favorite, the "of course!" Of course you're feeling judged! Who wouldn't given those circumstances! 

Of course you're struggling! This is hard stuff. ANYONE would find this tough!

Validating does not mean that you share their feelings or that you agree with the conclusions or decisions their feelings are leading them toonly that you can see how and why they are experiencing those feelings

Which brings us to...


Understanding Is Not the Same as Agreement

Teens aren't the only ones who conflate understanding with agreement. I've seen many adults, in all manner of contexts, do the same thing. Heck, between you and me, I'm sure that we've both done it a time or two ourselves. 

It's so easy to smoosh understanding and agreement together in our minds because we see ourselves as logical, rational beings (we're not, but that's a soapbox for another day). We assume that if someone else disagrees with us, it must be because they don't actually understand us. If they did, if they understood our (presumably trustworthy, accurate, and completely logical) thoughts and feelings, they would absolutely, 100% be on the same page. How could they not be? 

It's because understanding and agreement are NOT the same thing. You can absolutely understand someone and still disagree with them. 

Where relationships start to breakdown and conflict ensues is when validation is missing. Remember, you have to show that you understand - validate. Using this powerful skill prevents interactions from devolving, preserves bonds despite disagreements, and, if you really want to get effective, sets the stage for persuasion. People are much more likely to concede or compromise or even just accept undesired outcomes when they feel like they were first listened to and actually heard. 

Can you see how learning to validate others is worth your time?


Supporting Someone without Accidental Invalidation

Validation isn't just for conflict. It's also a useful skill when you want to provide support or deepen a connection. 

Often, when someone we care about is struggling in some way (especially when it's completely unrelated to us so our own egos and emotions aren't getting in the way), we have a strong urge to help them feel better. Unfortunately, our efforts can backfire when they are inadvertently invalidating. 

Don't feel sad/mad/bad or Don't be upset.

You're ok (when they clearly are not).

It's not that big of a deal.

This won't even matter in a week.

While the sentiment behind these statements - I don't want you to hurt - isn't wrong or bad, the unspoken message that gets conveyed is that their lived experience or reaction is. By trying to soften their pain, you may be amplifying it. Ouch.   

You may eventually end up in the same place, offering the same condolences, perspectives, or advice, but start with validation if you want to strengthen the relationship or actually be supportive. Reflect back what they're feeling at a minimum. 

That's scary.

That's infuriating.

That's demoralizing.

Just a single statement that acknowledges, rather than denies, reality at the moment can go a long way.

To really connect and support, intensify your validation efforts by joining them in their reactions.

I would feel the same way in your shoes!

You may even be able to share a similar experience to build camaraderie, just be careful not to hijack and make it all about you. We're going for "you're not alone" not "you're not important" here.

If you're baffled by their reaction and joining them would be dishonest (or just not possible for you), then you can lump them in with others.

I bet your colleagues feel the same way.

Again, we're going for "you're not alone."

Before you offer advice or try to talk them into change (e.g., changing the way they are thinking about, feeling, or approaching the situation), validate first. It's very much like the persuasion piece - demonstrate understanding so that the other person's basic need to feel seen is met, then they will be more amenable to help or taking effective action. 


A Challenge for You

I'll challenge you this week to do three things:

1. Pay attention to the people that you interact with who make you feel good, especially if you walk away from the interaction with a sense of "they really get me." What did they do or say? How did they provide validation?

2. Be on the look out for validation opportunities and try it out yourself. If this is a new skill for you, you'll probably miss the opportunities in the moment. That's ok. There's still room to grow. Reflect on interactions or conversations that involved conflict or disagreement or ones in which you found yourself giving advice or support. If you could rewind and redo, how might you alter your response to be more validating?  

3. Answer this question honestly, am I validating or invalidating toward myself


"The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood."
 - Dr. Ralph Nichols


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

Build psychological strength right from your inbox!

Get actionable information and tools to build psychological strength at home and at work.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.

Recent Posts

Your Mental Health Score Card

May 22, 2023

Modern Life Is Taking a Toll on Mental Health

May 15, 2023

Why I Hate Talking About Mental Health, from a Psychologist

May 09, 2023

Peak Mind Pro: Moving the Needle on Employee Mental Health

May 04, 2023

Back to Podcast & Blog