Validating Feelings: Helping People Feel Understood
Validation is a powerful communication skill. Its usage can dismantle power struggles, resolve arguments, and build deeply trusting relationships. Technically, validation is an advanced skill, because it builds upon the more basic skill of “reflective listening”. While reflective listening is frequently taught in communication workshops or classes, validation is less well understood, even by many professional marriage counselors.
Validation is called for when reflective listening fails to be enough to help a speaker feel truly understood. Before delving into more about validation, however, a review of reflective listening is in order.
The goals of reflective listening are several:
1. To facilitate the expression of someone else’s feelings.
2. To enhance a speaker’s problem-solving ability by helping them move through “stuck” feelings; and
3. To generate a feeling of warmth and understanding between listener and speaker.
The technique of reflective listening is deceptively simple to describe, and challenging to master. The listener must identify the primary feelings the speaker is having and then reflect back that understanding with an empathetic tone. For example:
Wife: If that neighbor parks in my space again I’m going to let all the air out of his tires!
Husband: Sounds like you’re angry that he keeps taking your spot.
Wife: You bet I am. I’ve told him not to ten times! But I don’t want to get him mad at us because I know what a jerk he can be.
Husband: You’re afraid of what else he might do.
Reflective listening avoids the many pitfalls listeners tend to fall into: judging, minimizing or discounting feelings, giving advice, or not responding at all. One of the most common pitfalls is trying to help “solve the problem”. Speakers are often just looking for empathy, a chance to vent, and to clarify their own thinking. They may consider it an insult to their intelligence for the listener to offer solutions. And if the solutions posed seem simple, the speaker may feel like her feelings are being judged as being irrational.
Reflective listening is not simply repeating or paraphrasing what a speaker has said. Most speakers don’t question your comprehension of their words, but they need to know that you know how they feel.
Reflective Listening Is Not Always Enough
While reflective listening is arguably the single most important communication skill taught, sometimes the technique falls short of its goals. When the feelings expressed are quite strong, or the speaker carries some doubt or shame about their feelings, a neutral reflection by the listener can miss the mark, even if the feeling reflected is accurate and the tone is empathetic. For example:
Worker: I can’t believe the secretary hasn’t finished my report yet. What the hell is the matter with her?
Co-worker: You’re angry that she’s not done.
Worker: Angry? Oh no. I’m sure she’s got her hands full like all of us. But damn it, I’ve got to present that report in half an hour!
Co-worker: You are afraid you won’t have it in time.
Worker: No. It doesn’t matter. I can present the bulk of it without having it in writing. …Damn!
The worker in this example is embarrassed by his own feelings as they are reflected back to him, and he denies them. He is not convinced by the reflective listening that his anger and fear are understandable. An empathetic tone of voice is not always enough to communicate that someone’s feelings are okay. The empathy in the tone, however, can be put into words. This is where the skill of validation comes in.
Simply put, validation is the message, “Your feelings make sense. Not only do I hear you, but I understand why you feel the way you do. You are not bad or wrong or crazy for feeling the way you do.”
This is a message people often need to hear, especially when they are rocked by strong feelings. No one is going to sound authentic, however, parroting these exact words. The art of validation is in tailoring the essence of this message to the specific feeling and situation the speaker is experiencing.
The Need For Validation
To understand why people need to be validated requires us to look at how often our feelings get shamed. As a society we have very few places where feelings are welcomed. We learn that strength means not crying, bravery means not feeling fear, and maturity means never being angry.
Showing strong emotion tends to make the people around you very uncomfortable. Usually, they will attempt to get you to stop as quickly as possible. They may try to convince you that your feelings are inappropriate. Or they may try to reassure you. Even if their intent is to help you feel better, often the message is that it’s not okay to feel bad.
Consequently, we have all accumulated many messages that our feelings are wrong. We yearn, therefore, for acceptance of our feelings, especially when our feelings are strong. Whatever else someone may be saying when they vent their feelings, they are probably also implicitly asking, “Are my feelings okay?” Validation answers this indirectly asked question, and provides satisfaction for a profound, though often unconscious, need.
The “Natural” Validation
Validation comes naturally whenever a listener feels the same way as the speaker. If Tom describes his anger at the invasiveness of telephone marketing and Corrine hates telephone marketing too, then all she has to do is express her feelings and Tom will probably feel supported that his feelings are okay.
Often someone needing validation will tell their story over and over again to different people, unconsciously searching for someone who feels the same way they do. Natural validation works well and does not require any specific skills. It is limited, however, to situations where the speaker and the listener feel the same way.
The Skill of Validation
When you do not feel the same way as someone you are listening to does, you can still validate their feelings. Doing so requires that you identify in yourself “sub-feelings” or different parts of yourself. While you may have a primary or dominant feeling about something, you can often have sub-feelings that are quite different.
When a friend moves away, a person might say she feels sad. While sadness may be the largest single feeling she has, she may have sub-feelings as well. She might feel angry at the friend for leaving. She might feel relieved that the friend is finally going to do what he has been talking about for years. Or she might feel afraid that her friend may be making a mistake.
There is a common misconception that we only feel one thing at a time. This error can make it difficult for a person to articulate his feelings. As soon as a person identifies one feeling, he hears a nagging voice inside saying “Oh no you don’t, you feel just the opposite!” Trying to decide on a single feeling with which to represent oneself can result in a confusing inner conflict, causing a person to become tongue tied. By allowing for the existence of sub-feelings, even contradictory ones, we can identify and express a more thorough picture of how we feel.
Identifying sub-feelings can also help us validate someone whose predominant feeling is different than our own. Imagine someone describing to a friend how angry he is at the thief who just held up a store he was in:
“I was so angry I just wanted to follow the guy out and beat him up!”
Imagine that the listening friend, however, identifies how scared she would be in that situation. She can’t imagine the desire to pursue the thief. The idea sounds quite stupid to her. She can still validate her friend’s feeling, however, by identifying her own sub-feelings.
She might ask herself, “Have I ever felt angry enough to want to fight back against someone?”. She may then remember wanting to slug a guy who harassed her with catcalls on the street the other day. Having contacted a similar anger within herself she can then validate her friend by saying something like:
“I can understand being angry enough to want to strike back”.
This validation is likely to feel genuine to her friend because she was willing to feel a similar anger inside her-self before she said it. If she had just said, “You are angry about the hold-up,” without identifying any sub-feelings of anger within herself, her response would likely seem mechanical and not very validating.
Some readers might fear that validating someone’s anger will make them more likely to act it out. Quite the opposite is true. When someone’s feelings are validated the urge to act them out actually lessens. The validation helps them let the feeling go and begin thinking more clearly about a wise course of action.
The art of validation, then, requires that you actually feel some aspect of the emotion the speaker is having. Your feeling does not have to be the main response you would have to the situation they describe. It can be a sub-feeling, or it can be a feeling you would have in another situation that has some similar elements. What makes a validation authentic is your willingness to call up and experience a part of yourself that can connect with the emotion being described. When you speak from that willingness, your message that the emotion in question is understandable or okay will be truly validating.
Can All Feelings Be Validated?
There is a logic to every feeling we have. The source of each feeling, however, is partly due to present circumstances and partly due to our past. To varying degrees, all feelings are influenced by both. Events in the present can trigger old feelings that a person may be unconscious of. When someone is not aware that his past feelings have been aroused, he may be especially confused by the intensity of his emotional response. This confusion will lead him to seek validation.
For example, Bob, a young man, may be terrified of asking an acquaintance, Courtney, on a date. This fear may seem unreason-able to Joan, a mutual friend who has often seen Courtney con-spicuously flirting with Bob. Bob may agree that he is stupid to feel so shy. Only when Bob and Joan take into account the painful rejections Bob has experienced in the past does Bob’s present level of fear make sense.
It is hard to figure out, for any given feeling, what percentage of that feeling is due to the present, and what percentage is fueled by the past. Usually the present holds an understandable trigger, and past experiences account for the intensity of a given feeling.
It is usually not helpful for listeners, however, to offer their assessment of the relative influences of past and present. This is too often perceived as a way of implying that the speaker’s level of feeling is inappropriate.
“I think you must feel that way because of something your mother did to you.”
This is likely to generate defensiveness in the speaker. Listeners who try to gauge the influence of the speaker’s past may be accused of acting like an uninvited therapist. Only when the speaker is genuinely interested in facilitated self-exploration of this type can a listener play this role effectively.
Validation, however, is a safe, effective, and less intrusive method of helping the speaker reflect on the source of their feelings. When a listener simply validates that the essence of a feeling could conceivably come from aspects of the present situation, the speaker usually relaxes. He begins to feel that he is not “wrong” to feel the way he does. He may then spontaneously begin to explore how the intensity of his feelings mayalso be due to past events.
When the listener restricts her comments to validation of the present trigger, she helps create the safe and accepting atmosphere the speaker may need to engage in such spontaneous self-exploration. Usually, this is all that a speaker is asking for.
If validation is insufficient in helping a speaker come to acceptance of his feelings, then further counseling techniques may be needed. If the speaker and listener are both willing, then the listener can probe respectfully about the possibility that past events may be adding intensity to present feelings. Examples of this may be:
“Have you had to deal with this kind of thing before?”
“Have you felt like this in other situations?”
“Are there any experiences or needs you have had that make you particularly vulnerable to this feeling?”
Another roadblock to good validation is the fallacy that we “choose our feelings”. Listeners can shame speakers with this misconception.
“So you are choosing to be upset with your husband. I guess that’s your right. How is it working for you?”
This approach may be well-meaning, but it is likely to be poorly received. The power of examining our choices is a valuable tool, but we must be clear about what we have choice over and what we do not.
Our feelings are bodily experiences that we perceive, rather than choose. The only direct choice we have over our feelings is whether to be aware of them or to repress them. Either choice may be appropriate, given the situation. Sometimes it is best to put your feelings aside and focus on a particular task. At other times, knowing how you feel is important so you can make good decisions, or so you can connect meaningfully with others.
There are choices we make, however, that affect our feelings indirectly. Our feelings spring from our needs, our experiences, and our interpretations of them. How we interpret events affects how we may feel about them. Our interpretations, and the beliefs upon which we base them, are subject to our choice. By changing the way we look at a situation we can change how we feel about it.
Unfortunately, many of the beliefs that underlie our interpretations of events are either not conscious, or resistant to change. The pessimist, for example, is unlikely to simply decide to suddenly believe that “things will all turn out okay”. Many past experiences have formed the basis for his pessimism. Perhaps, for instance, a pessimistic attitude was once an effective way to cope with a series of disappointments.
Changing one’s belief systems, therefore, can be a difficult process. First the underlying belief must be identified. Then, a more functional belief must be proposed, and finally, experiential evidence supporting the new belief must be accumulated. Only then do feelings begin to change.
Hence, it is unrealistic to expect someone to change their beliefs whenever challenged. Listeners who do this may appear callous and uncaring.
Feelings and Needs
Feelings are also a factor of whether a person’s needs are being met or not. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Non-violent Communication, explains that good feelings are the response we experience when our needs are being met and uncomfortable feelings are the result of our needs going unmet.
Feelings that spring from unmet needs are often difficult to accept, particularly if one does not believe that the needs they have are legitimate. Whether they believe it or not, all people have needs for connection, autonomy, mastery, physical comfort, and meaning. An under-standing of these universal human needs can help people give themselves more permission to have their needs and the feelings generated when those needs go unmet. Such self-acceptance can help a person soothe themselves when they cannot find validation for their feelings from someone else.
Validating Feelings about You
One of the greatest challenges of good communication is validating the feelings someone has about you. When someone has a negative feeling toward us our first impulse is usually defensiveness. It makes sense that we would feel defensive because rarely do we do something with the intention of hurting someone else.
In order to respond to such feedback it is useful to make the distinction between the intention you had and the impact of your actions on someone else. Intent does not always equal impact. Only you know what your intention really was. Only others know what your impact on them really was.
Good communication can be defined as creating the impact that you intend. In order to communicate well, you have to be willing to listen to ways that your impact may have varied from your intent. Such feedback can help you make the proper correct-ions. Often, however, your first impulse may be to defend your-self. Consider the following example:
Customer: Where’s my car! I’ve got to go! It’s supposed to be ready by now! It’s been an hour!
Tire Salesperson: You have to give us some leeway on our estimated time for a job!
The customer here may feel that the salesperson is invalidating her feelings. If so, she may insist that her anger is justified and an argument may ensue.
Validating someone’s feelings about you requires that you temporarily quell your impulse to explain yourself. Internally you may respect your intent and hold yourself blameless. Meanwhile, you focus your attention on what the other person felt and try to find something in your actions that could plausibly set off the feel-ings they describe. For example, our tire salesperson could say:
Tire Salesperson: Our estimate was off. I can see how that would be upsetting if you’re in a hurry.
It is helpful to acknowledge what you did or said that sparked someone’s feelings toward you. You do not, however, have to hold yourself accountable for the full intensity of their response. Your actions may have simply triggered strong feelings from their past. Pointing this out to someone, however, is likely to make them defensive unless you cop to your own involvement first. If you validate your contribution to their feelings they are often freed to look more closely at their own contribution.
After you have validated someone’s feelings about you and allowed some time for those feelings to release, you can explain what your intention was without appearing defensive. Here are a few examples of the difference between defensiveness, reflective listening, and validation:
Sister #1: Jackie! You pig! The pie is almost all gone!
Sister #2 (defensive): I didn’t eat it all!
Sister #2 (reflective): You’re angry about how much pie I ate.
Sister #2 (validating): Oh. I wasn’t keeping track of how much I was eating. But if I had more than my share it makes sense that you’d be pissed.
Child: This is a drag. You never take us anywhere fun.
Dad (defensive): What do you mean! What about last weekend!
Dad (reflective): You are bored with what we are doing.
Dad (validating): I can see how it might get pretty boring just hanging around here all day.
In both cases the validating response goes beyond the reflective response to include the message that the feelings expressed are understandable. The validating response thus addresses the unconscious question, “Are my feelings okay?” Because the need to be validated is so universal among people, those who gain proficiency at this skill can become very popular indeed.
Copyright: Tim Hartnett, 1997