What's It Made Of: Validation
Understanding the concept of validation is essential for building and maintaining close relationships. This is because most people appreciate feeling validated – that their perspective is understandable to other people. Many people appreciate therapy as a space where they receive validation that they may feel lacking of in other areas of life.
Conversely, when we feel repeatedly invalidated by a person, judged, or not given the benefit of the doubt, this makes withdrawing from the relationship more likely.
The act of validation helps interactions go well with others because it shows that we are listening and interested in their experience. It can also make others more receptive to what we have to say when we operate from a place of validation and non-judgmentalness.
While differing definitions of validation exist, I most prefer the concept as defined in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Validation in its essence is finding the kernel of truth in someone else’s perspective or situation. When we validate we are showing that person (or people) that we understand their perspective.
It does not necessarily mean that we like or agree with what the other person is saying, doing, or feeling. This is actually a key point, because from the most typical understanding of validation, liking/agreeing with and validation become conflated. Instead it means simply that you’re making an honest effort to understand where the other person is coming from.
For example, if a friend gets upset with you for failing to return a book, but it turns out that you did return it, you can validate that it’s frustrating to have your book missing without admitting that you have the book.
Similarly, if a loved one is describing feeling hopeless with dating and that they will never meet someone, you can validate that dating can be extremely frustrating and demoralizing without agreeing with the characterization that things are hopeless.
How to Validate
One thing I love about DBT’s way of describing validation is that it understands that validation can happen at different levels, rather than being an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Here are DBT’s 6 Levels of Validation, with each level providing stronger validation than the last:
1. Pay Attention
When we pay attention, we treat what the other person says as relevant and meaningful. It communicates that the other person in that moment is seen by you and important to you. In this sense, a loud back-and-forth argument between spouses, while not necessarily healthy for the relationship overall, can actually be more validating than one or both partners ignoring each other. Another example of this level of validation is teachers or professors who appreciate when their students make eye contact, communicating interest.
2. Reflect Back Without Judgment
At this level of validation, we verbally reflect back what we hear about someone’s situation, thoughts, and feelings without adding our own judgment or commentary. At this stage, it’s important to be aware that judgment may come across not only through our words but also our tone of voice and non-verbal cues.
For example, if a coworker says that “our boss hates me,” this level of validation would involve saying something like: “You feel like the boss has something against you.” Notice that to do this level of validation effectively, it is just as important to make sure you are leaving out what you need to (i.e., judgments, your own views) as including what you need to.
3. “Read Minds”
This one may seem confusing on its face because mind-reading is considered a common cognitive distortion – something that would best serve our mental health to try to avoid. The concept of “Reading Minds” here instead means that you try to figure out what’s going on with someone beyond what they’ve told you with their words.
At this level, you try to include what you know about that person’s history and body language along with what they’ve told you to intuit something about their experience that they haven’t yet put in words. When someone understands how you think or feel without having to tell them directly, this is almost always experienced as validating.
For example, if a friend cancels plans because their parents are unexpectedly visiting and they have to clean their house, this level of validation would involve saying: “That must be really stressful to find out they’re coming when you don’t feel ready.” At this level, we communicate that we know someone more closely than a stranger or distant acquaintance.
It is helpful for this process in general, and at this stage in particular, to use caution with our interpretations and be open to correction with them. That is, when we try to intuit what is going on for someone else, we can very often get it wrong.
When we are open to correction with them, acknowledging that we might not fully understand, the other person is likely to take the misinterpretation as a good-faith effort at connection. When we instead fiercely defend our interpretations, it can come off as hostile and backfire, becoming invalidating rather than validating.
4. Communicate Understanding of the Causes
At this level of validation, you look for how the other person’s thoughts, emotions, and actions make sense given their history or circumstances. Here, we take the idea of trying to read others minds and add communication of understanding – that on some level the actions, thoughts, or feelings make sense for that person, even when they are not effective or helpful to that person’s goals.
For example, if your partner’s parents acted very critically toward them growing up, you can validate that their tendency of defensiveness makes sense given their experience, even while you hold that it makes communication more difficult in the relationship.
5. Acknowledge and Act on the Valid
At this level of validation, we communicate that someone’s perspective makes sense because it fits the facts of the present situation at hand, is grounded in logic, or is effective for their goals.
Interestingly, it can often be more validating to examine the behavior as it fits the present situation rather than past experience/history/other characteristics:
For example, if your partner is upset that you forgot to pick them up at the airport, and you say, “I think you’re just upset because you hate flying,” they are likely to feel invalidated by this, even if it reflects a true aspect of that person (their strong aversion of flying). This is because attributing their feelings to past experiences/other characteristics suggests that there’s nothing about the present situation to explain those feelings.
A more validating response to this example would be: “You’re upset because you were expecting me to show up, and I wasn’t there. I know you were feeling stressed and wonder if you also felt rejected.”
Another thing to point out at this stage is that validation sometimes requires action. Just as validating the “wrong” aspects can be experienced as invalidating, so can validating with words when action is required.
For example, if your partner expresses anxiety that they lost their car keys, helping them search for the keys is more validating than saying, “It makes sense why you’re feeling so anxious about that.”
6. Show Equality
This final level captures more of the spirit of validation than any particular technique. It is the idea that you speak to and think about the other person on equal footing, the idea that they are entitled to equal respect. This is the opposite of treating someone with condescension or as overly fragile.
For example, when deciding where to go on vacation, you might have different preferences from your partner. Maybe you like the idea of just relaxing, while they like the idea of taking advantage of all the unique experiences of the place. If you both can discuss it from the understanding that both of your perspectives are different but equally important, this will put you in much better position to find a compromise where both partners feel respected.
Understanding how validation works and how we can validate others is extremely important to building strong friendships, intimate relationships, and family relationships. Validation is key to building emotional intimacy because it tends to cause others to feel safe expressing themselves around us. The reason for this is that, when we feel invalidated or misunderstood by others, we go into problem-solving mode to try to defend or explain ourselves (either internally in our minds or verbally to the other person), and this revs up your body’s Flight-Flight-Freeze mechanism, the body’s stress response.
It is critical to note that this strategy assumes that you want to validate the other person. Of course, there are times when this is not true, such as choosing to ignore someone insulting you rather than validating them with a response.
However, for relationships that matter to you, it is almost always helpful to try to validate at as high a level as you possibly can. Doing so has the effect of making it much easier to solve problems collaboratively, and to feel less judged ourselves as we try to do so.
Learning how to validate more effectively is a skill that is very beneficial and quite tricky to master. In this process it can be helpful to have a therapist (either individual or couples) that understands the importance that validation plays in mending relationship rifts and building healthy friendships with other people. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.