Validation: Show you’re listening—even if you disagree

Have you ever felt like the person you’re talking to just doesn’t hear what you’re saying? Maybe it’s your boss or commanding officer, a friend, your partner, or someone else. No matter who it is, chances are the conversation didn’t end the way you’d hoped it would. “Validation” is a communication skill that can help both parties in a conversation feel heard and understood.

What is validation?

Validation is a response that shows you accept another person’s feelings and point of view, even if you don’t agree. It’s answering in a way that shows the other person you believe their experience or statement is valid and that you don’t intend to change their view or correct them for being “wrong.”

It can be really hard to listen and respond to someone in an understanding way when you’re upset or your experience differs from theirs. Validation isn’t just nodding your head, paying lip service, or agreeing with whatever someone might be saying. It’s about showing you really hear someone and understand why they feel the way they do.

Why it matters

Validation is particularly important during emotionally charged situations. An empathetic, nonjudgmental response can reduce how often and how severe conflict is when it surfaces, which can help you improve your relationships. On the other hand, responses that are dismissive, defensive, or rejecting tend to escalate arguments, lead to misunderstandings, and can make you or the other person feel unimportant, angry, or ignored.

What is sounds like

You can show people you hear them and accept their feelings, ideas, actions, and goals in many ways. Let’s say you show up late for a dinner meeting. Even if you believe you’re late for a good reason, you can state the facts of the situation (“I know I arrived 10 minutes late for dinner”) or recognize the other person’s feelings (“I get that you’re frustrated I arrived later than you expected”). It’s true: You might need to put aside your feelings temporarily and focus on the other person to give a validating response. But when both parties are able to validate each other’s perspective, then both sides will feel heard, understood—and hopefully more willing to move on.

 A great way to start practicing validation is by using some of these verbal techniques:

  • Reflection. Show you’re listening by repeating what you heard the other person say. Use descriptive language, such as “what I heard you say is that you’re upset because it seems I wasn’t mindful of the time” rather than judgmental language.
  • Seek clarification. Ask questions to make sure what you’re hearing is what the other person intended. This can also help you both get better at clearly expressing your thoughts and emotions.
  • Normalize. Communicate that what the other person is feeling makes sense based on their experience, or perspective—and that others in their situation might also feel similarly.

What it looks like

Another important way to practice validation involves the nonverbal signals you send.

  • Mindful listening. Pay attention to what the other person is saying, avoid distractions (even those caused by your own emotions), and don’t judge.
  • Be aware of your facial expressions. Are you making eye contact? Avoid rolling your eyes or looking away. Are you frowning or laughing? What’s appropriate for the situation?
  • Think about your physical gestures. Does your body language suggest you’re open to listening, or are your arms crossed or your hands on your hips? If you’re talking to your spouse or partner, perhaps you’ll want to reach out and hold hands while you speak or offer a hug if they seem upset.
  • Demonstrate validating actions. When you know your partner is stressed, you might bring home their favorite take-out or do extra chores around the house. Or, if a coworker is having a hard time, you could offer to go for a walk or get lunch with them.

Bottom line

It takes practice to respond to those around you in a way that shows you understand and accept their feelings and experiences, even if you don’t agree. Try to keep an open mind, and hone your skills by asking for feedback from others. By building your validating response skills, you can have positive impacts on almost any relationship.

Resources

Fruzzetti, A. E., & Worrall, J. M. (2010). Accurate expression and validating responses: A transactional model for understanding individual and relationship distress. In Support Processes in Intimate Relationships (pp. 121–150): Oxford University Press

Greville-Harris, M., Hempel, R., Karl, A., Dieppe, P., & Lynch, T. R. (2016). The power of invalidating communication: Receiving invalidating feedback predicts threat-related emotional, physiological, and social responses. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 35(6), 471–493. doi:10.1521/jscp.2016.35.6.471

Herr, N. R., Jones, A. C., Cohn, D. M., & Weber, D. M. (2015). The impact of validation and invalidation on aggression in individuals with emotion regulation difficulties. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 6(4), 310–314. doi:10.1037/per0000129

Shenk, C. E., & Fruzzetti, A. E. (2011). The impact of validating and invalidating responses on emotional reactivity. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 30(2), 163–183. doi:10.1521/jscp.2011.30.2.163

Shenk, C. E., & Fruzzetti, A. E. (2013). Parental validating and invalidating responses and adolescent psychological functioning. Family Journal, 22(1), 43–48. doi:10.1177/1066480713490900