Learning how to validate another person’s feelings is a tremendously valuable relationship skill. If you aren’t yet familiar with the concept, check out my earlier post on the subject, and/or, if you’re in the mood to sit down and do a deep dive for a few hours, you can snag a copy of my book.
“But,” you say, “validation is easy when you’re just trying to help a distressed friend, or are sharing in someone’s excitement. What about when they’re angry at me or accusing me of something that isn’t true? Why on earth would I validate that?”
Because effectively validating the other person’s concerns is the quickest way to calm their anger, make *your* perspective heard, resolve the issue, and even come out of the argument with a stronger relationship than when it started.
The key here is to understand that you can validate someone, even when you disagree with them. In fact, I recommend reading that article first, before continuing on here, because it lays a critical foundation for the rest of this post.
If you’re too strapped for time to read both, though, I’ll summarize the key points below.
“I Hear You” Doesn’t Mean “I Agree With You.”
When we validate, we’re not saying, “you’re right, I meant to hurt you.” Instead, we’re saying, “I understand why you’d think that. I’d be just as angry, given the same background, limited information, emotional state, etc.”
While it may not seem like it at first, most people’s reactions (even the seemingly irrational ones) make perfect sense once you truly understand where that person is coming from. You may need to think about their background, their fears, their hopes, the fact that they might not have all the details, etc. but—more often than not—you’ll find that their response is actually quite reasonable given the situation.
This is critical to understand, because when someone comes at us—throwing accusations, yelling in our face, telling us we’re a horrible person—most people’s immediate reaction is to respond in-kind. Match their arguments with counter-arguments, talk over them, yell at them, and/or otherwise try to force them into submission. In most arguments, we focus on one primary objective: get the other person to admit that they’re wrong.
But how often does that work?
How many arguments have you been in where the other person actually admits that they’re wrong and you’re right, and walks away with their tail between their legs?
And if you ever have “won” an argument like that, how did you feel afterward? And how do you think that other person felt?
While “winning” an argument may feel nice in the moment, chances are good you’ve humiliated and belittled the other person. No one likes to be proven wrong—much less forced to admit it—so if you succeed in that goal, how do you think the other person is left feeling? While you got the other person to admit that you were “right,” what did it cost you? What did it cost your relationship?
Not a Pushover
Now, before I go any further, let me be clear about one thing: I’m not suggesting you just lay down and take whatever accusations people throw your way. I’m not suggesting you turn the other cheek and let people push you around. Knowing how to set boundaries and stand up for yourself is a critical part of emotional health, personal strength, and long-term happiness.
What I am suggesting here is that there is a healthier, stronger, more effective way to navigate arguments. A way that allows you to show respect for the other person, while also holding your ground, making your side of the story heard, and working together to find a solution. Seriously, once you get the hang of it, it’s like a superpower.
The following skills/tools/tips are what you’ll aim to use in tense situations.
1. Hear the other person out—no matter how absurd their arguments might be.
I’ll be the first to say it: this is easier said than done. And, if you can hold back your counter-arguments long enough to allow the other person to finish out their point, I promise you will have a better chance at making your point heard.
This means keeping your “that’s not true!” and “oh come on—seriously?” comments until later. It doesn’t have to be for long, but most of us don’t let the other person get a second sentence out before challenging the first. We think that, if we let accusations go unchecked, the whole conversation will spiral out of control.
The truth is, just the opposite is true.
When you immediately challenge someone’s thoughts or feelings, most people fight back harder. They dig their heels into the ground and you create a near-impenetrable force to deal with for the duration of the argument.
In contrast, if you truly just let someone make their full point—uninterrupted—it’s often so unexpected that they naturally soften their walls and become at least somewhat more receptive to your side of the story.
2. Ask questions to better understand (not challenge) their point of view
There’s one exception to the above tip, and that’s that it’s generally okay to ask clarifying questions to be sure you understand where they’re coming from. So if the other person is saying:
“You don’t care about me and the kids at all! You’re never around and I have to do everything!”
You might ask one or more of the following clarifying questions:
“Why do you say that?”
“Does this have to do with last weekend?”
“Are you talking about the household chores, or what?”
The better you understand the situation, and how the other person is feeling, the better your validation.
3. Own up to whatever you can
This takes both humility and strength (which, for the record, I consider to be one and the same). In most—but not all—situations, there will be at least one or two bits of truth to what the other person is saying. If that’s the case in your situation, there is immense power in simply owning up to it. This doesn’t mean you agree to everything they’re accusing you of—just the parts that are true.
So, continuing with the example from the last point, you might say:
“I haven’t been home much lately, you’re absolutely right.”
The above response is disarming, validating, and assuring all in the same breath. It helps the other person see that you’re being reasonable, and that you’re not going to just fight back for fighting’s sake. Notice you’re not agreeing that you don’t care at all about your spouse or your kids. You’re also not agreeing that your spouse “does everything.”
If you feel there’s literally no truth to what you’re being accused of, then don’t placate or give in just to try to calm the other person down. Staying in truth and holding your ground is just as important to the argument as it is to your own personal confidence and strength. So, if we assume in the above example that you are home most of the day—and your spouse is somehow expecting you to be home every single minute—then you might respond with the following:
“Taking care of the kids is overwhelming. And I get that when I’m gone—even if just for an hour—it can seem like an eternity.”
Again—you’re not agreeing that you don’t care; you’re not even saying that you’re never home. What you’re doing is keying in on how your spouse is feeling (overwhelmed, distraught, disillusioned) and showing him/her you can appreciate those feelings.
4. Use “and” instead of “but”
This communication skill is so powerful, I wrote an entire article about it. When used to connect two phrases in a sentence, the word “but” essentially dismisses the first phrase altogether. This isn’t always an issue, but when it undoes praise, agreement, or an important point, it can start to become a problem.
This is especially true when you’re in an argument.
Keeping with our ongoing example, thus far, you’ve listened and validated—two critical elements of defusing conflict. If you use “but” as the transition word into your side of the story, however, it undoes all of your hard work. For example:
“I haven’t been home much lately, you’re absolutely right. But of course I care about you and the kids!”
As odd as it may sound, most people will jump right back on the defense when they hear you say “but.” It sounds crazy, but I’ve seen it play out in thousands of arguments. It’s some sort of cosmic, universal, undying truth.
If you instead say:
“I haven’t been home much lately, you’re absolutely right. And, I absolutely care about you and the kids!”
I guarantee you, you will preserve far more of the “safe” feeling of respect and understanding that you worked so hard to create. If you don’t believe me, try it. It’s more powerful than you might think.
5. Make your point.
Now is the time to share your side of the story or offer your arguments. Once the other person feels heard and understood, they are far more likely to be open to your side of the story. As we continue on the dialogue from our example, let’s assume that you, too, are feeling under-appreciated, and like your spouse doesn’t recognize just how much you do for them and the kids. You might say:
“Truth be told, I’ve been feeling under-appreciated as well. I recognize that you have a ton on your plate juggling the kids, laundry, day care, homework, etc. And, my work is draining as well. I’m working my butt off so we can live in a nice home, have plenty of food, etc. Again—I’m not at all suggesting that you’re not carrying a heavy load—I know that you are—all I’m saying is that it’s not as one-sided as it may feel.”
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “who talks like that? There’s no way an actual argument will play out like that.”
Well, I talk like that. My wife talks like that. My entire family, those I coach, and most those I went through therapy with, talk like that. And while it doesn’t always play out exactly like the above example (because there’s no “perfect” way of handling an argument), it should nevertheless serve as a basic example of how a passionate point can be made without yelling or completely dismissing the other person’s.
However you argue your point, as long as you’ve first listened and validated, and as long as you follow the tips from my language and communication skills article, you should fare pretty well.
Bonus: Validate Again
This return to validation is the last step in the Four-Step Validation Method I outline in my book, and I bring it up here because it’s powerful in an argument. If you’ve reached some sort of an understanding, it’s incredibly healing to wrap up with a simple validating statement such as the following:
“Thank you for saying something. These conversations are never easy, so I appreciate you speaking up. The last thing I want is for you to feel unappreciated, so I’m glad we talked about it.”
Short, sweet, and powerful.
Putting it All Together
Alright, so how would this argument play out in its [somewhat shortened] entirety? Let’s take a look:
Spouse: “You don’t care about me and the kids at all! You’re never around and I have to do everything!”
You: “Why do you say that?”
Spouse: “Because you’re never here!”
You: “What do you mean?? I’m here every night! And on the weekends!”
Spouse: “Uh, yeah, after like, 9PM!”
You [nodding in acknowledgement]: “True…”
Spouse: “And you have NO idea how exhausting it is every day to take care of the kids! I can’t get one minute of alone time. Not ONE MINUTE of rest until you get home! And Olivia came home from school crying today, Jason is still refusing to eat his dinner, and I just feel like I’m completely falling apart.”
You [after taking a deep breath and pausing]: “Yeah…you do a lot each day.”
Spouse: “I wish you’d just step up and help out every now and then around here, you know? I can’t do this all on my own!”
You: “You’re right that I haven’t been home much lately, and taking care of the kids is overwhelming—especially from nine to nine each day. And, truth be told, I’ve been feeling under-appreciated as well. I recognize that you have a lot on your plate juggling the kids, laundry, day care, homework, etc. And, my work is draining as well. I’m working my butt off so we can live in a nice home, have plenty of food, etc. Again—I’m not at all suggesting that you’re not carrying a heavy load—I know that you are—all I’m saying is that it’s not as one-sided as it may feel. I am doing a lot to support the family as well.”
Spouse: “Well I need help. I can’t keep doing this without you.”
You: “I get that. We definitely need to figure something out.”
[You two explore possible solutions together, such as hiring a nanny or cleaning help, perhaps you agree to come home for dinner and then go back to the office, etc.]
You [after reaching some sort of a resolution, or a decision to revisit the conversation later]: “Thank you for saying something. These conversations are never easy, so I appreciate you speaking up. The last thing I want is for you to feel unappreciated, so I’m glad we talked about it.”
Spouse: “Thank you for listening.”
Is this idealistic? Perhaps. We’re working off of hypotheticals, after all. And in certain relationships or circumstances, you may not even get halfway through a sentence without being interrupted, even after you’ve listened and validated.
But we’re talking about principles here. Key tips and tricks to keep in mind as you’re navigating a tough situation. And while following these tips won’t guarantee that your argument plays out as smoothly as the above, they will generally work well enough to help you find resolution, appreciation, or at very least let the argument fizzle out without saying or doing something you’ll regret.
We’ve covered a lot in this article. To sum it all up briefly, I’ll say this:
- Arguments are normal, even in healthy, happy relationships
- Learning to listen and validate someone, even when you disagree, helps the other person feel heard, and helps get your point heard.
- When you are arguing your side of the story, use the language and communication tips to avoid fueling the argument.
- Always remember to be respectful. Do your best to keep the argument about an issue, not a person.
What do you think? Have you tried this? If so, how did it work for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.