Although it seems like it should be a verb, the word “validation” comes up as a noun when looking for the definition. Perhaps I can refer to it as an “interactional noun” to feel better about it. As a marriage and family therapist and advocate for healthy relationships, I believe relational validation is a foundational tool in connecting and understanding one another.
Working therapeutically with engineers is always fun (seriously!). Engineers in therapy have an especially intense learning curve as they move to reshape how they define concepts as well as how to communicate and behave in both emotional and rational ways. When these clients think about validation, they are accustomed to the common definition that highlights validation as the action of checking or proving the accuracy of something.
My experience is personal when it comes to relating to engineers and other scientist-types. I married one. We are an amazing complementary match. He leans logical and I lean (heavily at times) emotional. Our relational dance has historically involved me expressing an uncomfortable experience and my beloved husband responds with a love lens of problem-solving. It pains him to see me experiencing emotional discomfort.
His way of caring for me is through a plan of making a change to decrease emotional pain. As much as I appreciate his creativity and action-plan, it wasn’t what I needed. It took me years to figure out exactly what I needed and then many more years to teach him how to deliver it to me in an authentic and meaningful way. For years we both found ourselves frustrated with a mismatch of expectations. He wanted to take away my pain and I just needed him to acknowledge that pain existed. I simply needed affirmation that my feelings, thoughts and opinions are valid and worthwhile.
Case example of Relational Validation: A Work in Progress
Validation can be magical, for both the receiver and the sender. The simplicity of validation is a mystery. How and why does it work? As a therapist, I experience tremendous resistance from partners who have not been trained (in their family upbringing) to incorporate validation into relationships. A common response is skepticism. I recall a couple of therapy session whereby we slowed the interactional process waaaaaayyyyy down.
I invited a wife to share a negative circumstance that was currently on her heart that she was experiencing outside of her marriage. The husband’s knee jerk reaction when relating to his wife was to blast off into problem-solving mode. I observed the wife’s response which was to shut down. She stopped sharing verbally and withdrew.
At this point, I intervened and recommended gently, but firmly that the husband responds with a validating statement. At this point, because constructing a validation statement was completely foreign to this man, I helped. In fact, I spoon fed him the words to use with his wife. I directed him to turn to his wife and respond with “that must be so hard for you”, he struggled a bit.
He interpreted the simplicity of this approach as foolish, but he acquiesced to my request and tried it. What happened next was truly magical. His wife received this new and different relational gift openly. I observed her physically change. Her shoulders relaxed and she shifted in her seat to an open stance toward her husband. I felt the energy in the room shift.
I experienced an environment of connection between these two humans. Our next few moments were spent processing the husband’s confusion. He was far from convinced that this simple equation could truly “work”. It was now up to his wife to positively reinforce this new interactional dance and up to the husband to continue practicing. After all, he would need to extinguish his knee jerk relational tendency of invalidation through leaping to problem-solving.
So, I have referred to validation as foundational, simple and magical. Now I want to leave you with a few steps to practice relational validation. In the steps below I assume that the reader of this article is going to be the validator. Additionally, I refer to the receiver of validation as “your human being”. I do this because you could be interacting with you spouse, parent, child, friend or co-worker and it is an effort to be as inclusive and general as possible.
Step 1: Be in the moment
Authentically listen. Be with your human being and engage with his or her current emotional experience. Eye contact is key. Monitor your quickness to making assumptions or mindreading. Invite your human being to become vulnerable and feel safe opening up to you.
Step 2: Incorporate empathy
Consider context of history and biology of your human being. Look to understand how your human being is feeling, rather than focusing so much on the content of what is being said.
Step 3: Formulate your response with the goal of soothing and deliverance of understanding
Be flexible with your response. Many times it will be a verbal response. Validating statements are truly different however. Here are a few to get you thinking in this direction:
- You have every right to feel that way.
- I can’t imagine how frustrated you must feel.
- I feel sad as I sit with you and see your pain.
- I feel so grateful that you have shared this with me.
- I see you as so amazing right now.
- It seems so reasonable that you would be angry about this.
- I am having a hard time finding words, but want you to know that I care about you.
- That sucks!
Notice the focus on the emotion, rather than the content. Validation is not about agreement. You are tuning into the feelings of your human. This is part of the magic. If you are in a disagreement, there is a way to bring connection to the interaction if validation is utilized.
Bonus points for physical touch to accompany your verbal response. In fact, at times, silence and only a light touch of a hand is plenty. Let me repeat that. At times, no verbal response is even needed, but rather just a warm embrace of a hug meets each person’s goal (validation, connection).
Step 4: Accuracy check
Elicit feedback. Seek to understand how your human being is doing after revealing thoughts, feelings or opinions to you. Check in both your human being and also with yourself. Do you feel more connected to this special person? Are there adjustments or shifts that you might make in future interactions?
In closing, relational validation, when applied regularly, can truly enhance nearly every relationship that you are in. Two pieces to remember, experiment and practice are required. Relationships take a good bit of work. Investing intentionally in your relationships by utilizing relational validation regularly has the potential to reap a wealth of benefits.
If you are a bit lost with this concept and believe guidance would be beneficial. Reach out to a therapist who can assist you by guiding, uncovering, coaching and practicing. You may choose to seek an individual therapist to work on how your history and biology complicates your effectiveness with using relational validation. Another option is to hire a marriage or couples therapist to join you in the journey of communicating and connecting authentically.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.