How does validation work?

It’s an universal human need for our emotions to be understood, accepted and empathized with – that’s called validation. The old saying “pain shared is half felt” did not become popular by chance. We don’t even necessarily need to be told we are right; simply being understood and accepted, even if the other person doesn’t agree with us, usually does miracles to our attitude and willingness to cooperate. So, if validation is so powerful, why is it sometimes quite difficult to give it?

Validation is often the essence of our long, seemingly aimless chats with friends. This might be more obvious among women, but it’s common in male friendships, too. Remember how you feel when you share your frustrations, concerns and other feelings with friends and receive understanding and compassion. It’s an automatic feeling of relief. Your concerns are still there but somehow they feel smaller; you feel you have support, you are not alone, and your feelings are shared by others. Your feeling of connection and trust for people who validate your feelings grows. In fact, we could say that validation is the key foundation of friendships.

Many marriages fall apart because of lack of validation. It causes the feelings of connection and trust to diminish which time. It’s easier to give and receive validation with friends; you usually don’t share so many practical obligations with them. As an adult, probably you don’t even spend quite so much time with your friends. In fact, as soon as people start a business or another demanding project with a friend, there is much more chance for conflict and the friendship often suffers.

Why can validation be difficult?

In a marriage, there are many possible frustrations, many daily disagreements, a lot of potential for misunderstanding every day. That also offers us many chances to give validation and therefore earn trust. Yet this is not so easy as it sounds. Most people feel that if they validate their partner’s feelings when the partner is angry with them, it would mean acknowledging they did something that deserves that anger. Since most of us also carry childhood programming of being disproportionately punished and criticized for our mistakes, this also increases the inner pressure to defend ourselves from criticism. We can feel validation in such a situation is dangerous for our boundaries and opens up too much space for attacks.

Yet you might have experienced being angry with somebody, yet immediately feeling much better and more open to them as soon as your feelings were validated. Validation doesn’t have to be “you are right”; sometimes it’s simply enough to feel heard without the other person immediately trying to defend themselves. When you feel your perspective is heard without being immediately rejected, it helps you open to other perspectives, too.

Staying calm enough to react so maturely can be difficult because intense childhood emotions often arise in such situations. If uncomfortable emotions prevent you from staying at least somewhat relaxed, if you notice that your communication is becoming thoughtless, it is necessary to recognize where this reaction is coming from and consciously return to an adult state of mind. Read more about this in the article “What Is Age Regression?

How to validate even when being criticized?

So how can we offer validation even when we feel attacked, in order to build trust and connection in our relationships?

I remember expressing irritation with my late first partner early on in our relationship. He said: “I’m sorry you feel that way; it was not my intention.” I never heard such a thing before. I expected refusal and dismissal. His words felt as he was opening a door, building a bridge to me. My expectation of conflict was gone, and with it, most of my tension. I felt no more need to think about how he “wronged” me in order to set boundaries. That one sentence did wonders for my trust in him.

In another situation, I had three objections to a suggestion he gave. He simply said “Yes” or “Yes, I understand” to each one of them. My objections immediately became less important to me, simply because I felt they were acknowledged by him. I guess it made me trust that my boundaries would be respected. I agreed to his suggestion quite easily after that (although that’s not necessarily always the result).

Sometimes simply non-verbal expressions of empathy can be enough to feel validated; when somebody nods with understanding, or looks thoughtful, or hugs us after we express our feelings, it alone can made us feel heard and understood. If they simply take some time to think about what we are saying, rather than promptly defending themselves, that already diffuses the tension.

Asking questions is a great way to show your partner you are listening and trying to understand, without having to agree with them. Some such questions can be, “What worries you?”, “How did that make you feel?”, “What did you feel was my intention?”, “How did that sound to you?” or “What do you need from me right now?” If you feel your partner is overreacting to small issues, it might be a good idea to ask, “Is there something deeper that bothers you, but you don’t know how to tell me?” Many people overreact to small irritations when there is something bigger hidden “under the carpet” they don’t dare talk about.

A good skill is also something we could call “preemptive validation”. If you know your partner’s triggers well enough to know when you might have accidentally triggered them, you might want to address it without waiting for them to so. For example: “I hope what I said earlier didn’t sound like I was criticizing you; I was simply a bit surprised.”

Make sure to defend yourself only after first spending some time offering validation. When defending yourself, it’s a good idea to start with some more validation, such as, “I understand it can seem like that from your perspective – and from my perspective, my intention was (…)”.

Without the need for long-winding, official sounding sentences, these are some ways in which you can offer validation easily and naturally, but still protect your sense of boundaries. Like any other communication skill, this will most likely work well with reasonable, well-meaning people. Don’t expect it to work with narcissists, manipulative and other toxic people, who are not really interested in balance and cooperation.

You might want to continue with:

10 Key Rules For Communication In A Relationship

How To Give Advice To Your Partner Without Arguing

How To Stand Up For Yourself

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Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Kosjenka Muk

I’m an Integrative Systemic Coaching trainer and special education teacher. I taught workshops and gave lectures in 10 countries, and helped hundreds of people in 20+ countries on 5 continents (on- and offline) find solutions for their emotional patterns. I wrote the book “Emotional Maturity In Everyday Life” and a related series of workbooks.

Some people ask me if I do bodywork such as massage too – sadly, the only type of massage I can do is rubbing salt into wounds.  😉

Just kidding. I’m actually very gentle. Most of the time.

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