How to Validate Someone When You Don’t Agree With Them

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As I continue to share the power of validation—whether through my book, speaking engagements, podcast interviews, etc.—I receive thoughtful questions from readers and listeners that dig deeper into the day-to-day application of this versatile skill. Today, I’d like to address the question that I receive more than any other:

I can see how validation is important in a relationship, but what if I don’t agree with what the other person is saying? What if their perspective is so out of whack that I don’t want to support it?

It’s an important question. Emotional validation is an immensely powerful way to show support and appreciation for another individual. Few things will have a greater impact on your personal and professional relationships than learning how and when to validate. Yet no two people—and no two situations—are exactly alike, making mastery of the skill a bit more difficult than one might expect.

When Validation Gets Tricky

In most instances, when someone comes to us in anger, frustration, overwhelm, sadness, etc., we want to help. If the other person is dealing with something we, too, would get angry about, it’s easy to validate their emotions:

“Wow, he really said that??”
“No way. I’d be ticked!”

This gets trickier, however, if we don’t agree with how the other person is seeing things.

Let’s say you’re talking with a person who feels they’ve been treated unfairly, but you know there’s more to the story.

You could do what most people do, and immediately tell this person that they’re being irrational and/or assure them that everything will be alright.

But if you’ve read my book (or earlier article on the subject), you know that doing so will likely do more harm than good. The other person will either push back or withdraw, and be less likely to confide with you in the future.

This is because the other person won’t be able to deal with their anger—nor will they be open to your advice or alternate explanation—until they feel heard and understood.

We should therefore always aim to validate the other person’s emotions, even when we disagree with what they’re saying.

“Validating” Doesn’t Mean “Agreeing”

When we validate, we’re not saying, “you’re right, he 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.

But What If I Still Think They’re Being Irrational?

If you’re having a hard time validating someone because you don’t agree with (or can’t empathize with) what they’re experiencing, try asking a few information-seeking questions to better understand.

For example:

“What about that do you feel is unfair?”
“Then what did he say?”
“Did he tell you that, or did you hear it from someone else?”

Once you are able to recognize how they’re misreading the situation, you can better appreciate their reaction and the validity of their feelings. If you can’t connect emotionally, hopefully you can at least reach a logical understanding of how they arrived at their conclusion.

You might then say:

“I see that. If you felt like he was going behind your back like that, it makes complete sense that you’d be angry.”

That comment is validating because it gives the other person permission to feel what they’re feeling. It shows that you’re not judging them for reacting the way they are. You’re saying—in complete honesty—that it does make sense to react the way they have, given their perspective and experience.

Can I Ever Share My Opinion or Give Advice?

“So that’s it?” you ask. “I just have to sit there while someone complains to me and keep my arguments or solutions to myself?”

Not at all.

Validation simply sets you up for a more effective conversation. Once the other person feels heard and understood, they will be significantly more likely to accept your side of the story.

ProTip: Most of us jump at the opportunity to give advice. If that advice is unsolicited, however, it’s not always appreciated. Instead of launching right in to your brilliant idea, consider asking if the other person wants it. Asking permission to share your thoughts shows a tremendous amount of respect for the other individual and, in turn, makes them much more receptive. This might look like any of the following:

“This is obviously a difficult situation. I have a few additional insights if you’d like to hear them?”
“Goodness. I do have some thoughts…may I share?”
“That is tough. And, I don’t think you’re seeing it clearly. May I explain?”
“I don’t blame you for being upset—from the information you had, it absolutely looked like that. May I share what really happened?”

It is absolutely appropriate to correct misinformation, call out harmful thinking, present your side to the story, or otherwise provide a second perspective. Just make sure you’ve effectively listened and validated first.

Is All This Really Worth It?

Perhaps this example, taken from my book, will illustrate:

Years ago, a coworker came into my office and asked to talk. He sat down and began to express concern that another coworker, whom I had put in charge of a few rather menial tasks, was underqualified and might produce work inconsistent with our brand.

I listened as this coworker expressed his concerns. After a moment or two, I tried to jump in and assure him that I had it taken care of. My reassurance appeared to go in one ear and out the other, though, and he then expressed concern about my own creative experience and ability.

A feeling of wounded pride began to well up inside me as I fought to keep my cool and avoid getting defensive. Despite my efforts, it wasn’t long before I began listing for him my education and experience in a futile attempt to convince him that I did, in fact, know what I was doing.

After a couple attempts to make him feel better in this way (while also defending my ego), I realized it wasn’t working. He continued to restate his original points over and over and continued to raise new concerns. We were talking in circles, and he clearly wasn’t hearing me.

Then, I took a step back and realized I was handling this all wrong. I had jumped right to trying to fix the problem before acknowledging and validating his concerns. He wasn’t hearing me because I wasn’t hearing him. I paused for a moment, listened closer to what he was saying, and tried to understand what he was feeling. I realized that, from the limited information he had, he did have reason to be concerned.

I paused for a moment, and then said, “You know what, Jace? I can absolutely see why you’re concerned. Without hearing all the discussion and project details, you just see this guy suddenly working on projects for which he’s not the most qualified. I whole-heartedly agree with you there. You’re basically left to wonder who’s driving these projects, if you’ll get to have any say in the creative direction, etc. I’d be concerned too if I were in your shoes.”

Yeah,” he said, the relief audible in his voice. “That’s exactly it. I’m just concerned that he doesn’t have the experience and skill for these types of projects.”

“Aha!” I thought to myself, “progress!” Recognizing that one validating comment had finally broken us out of the endless cycle of argument, I continued:

“I totally get why you’re concerned, and I very much appreciate your keeping an eye out for the company. I also appreciate you bringing this up to me, as I know these kinds of conversation aren’t easy to have.”

“Yeah seriously, Michael,” he said with an even deeper sigh of relief. “I don’t think you have any idea how hard this is for me to have this conversation with you right now.”

By this point, the tension in the conversation had eased significantly, and Jace, now feeling heard and understood, was finally open to my perspective. I explained to him that I too felt this individual was not the best fit for the position, but that he was qualified enough for these particular projects. I assured Jace that I would be working closely with this person to ensure quality work and that I wanted Jace’s help in executing a few key elements.

“Thank you, Michael,” he said, “that is what I needed to hear. I feel much better about this now.” He left my office and we carried on with our work.

Notice how (after a little trial and error on my part), I was able to validate Jace’s concerns without ever saying, “You’re right. He shouldn’t be working on this.” If I hadn’t paused to understand and validate his concerns, our conversation could have continued for hours with little or no resolution.

If someone is distraught, angry, or concerned, validating them is your best chance at getting them to be receptive to feedback. The great thing is, you can validate someone even if you disagree with them. Learning to do so will give you a valuable tool for navigating confrontations, negotiations, disagreements, and the like.

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29 thoughts on “How to Validate Someone When You Don’t Agree With Them”

  1. I like the advice and reasoning, however some of the wording in example responses is quite problematic. Asking someone if you can share “what really happened” is extremely presumptuous, especially if they weren’t even there or if they don’t know the people involved. And honestly, even if they do, there is no right or wrong for reactions to things – everyone’s experience of things is UNIQUE, and VALID. You can’t tell someone their experience is wrong or invalid or not what really happened, it doesn’t work that way. If they had a really bad experience they can go to therapy and try to work through it. If you are really a friend, just be there for your friend and support them, what are friends for?

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Thank you, Lola—I’m glad you brought this up. I see now that that example, without more context, can send the wrong message. I was imagining an argument where the upset individual heard untrue rumors about the other person. In that instance, the person validating (the one who *was* there) could still validate the other person’s emotions (they are upset because of what they *heard* happened), while also sharing more details surrounding the experience.

      You are spot-on that telling someone that what they experienced wasn’t “real,” or that they are in some way being irrational, is presumptuous, disrespectful, and counter productive. I’m a big proponent of non-judgment, and allowing people the space to properly deal with and process difficult emotions. Thank you for weighing in!

      1. Georgette Josephs

        This was perfect validation with clarification. I have learnt a lot from the article as someone who is always feeling invalidated in my relationship. It makes more sense to me now why I resent my partner. I never felt heard or understood. I’m dismissed or discounted with these invalidations.

        1. Michael S. Sorensen

          Hi Georgette,

          I’m happy to hear you’ve found it insightful. And I’m sorry to hear that you feel invalidated in your relationship—that’s never a fun feeling and can certainly put a strain on a relationship.

          If you haven’t read it already, I published an article with some thoughts on how to handle such a situation that you might find helpful: https://michaelssorensen.com/2019/06/19/what-to-do-if-your-partner-isnt-great-at-listening-or-validating/

          Best,

          Michael

  2. I found this article very helpful as my husband likes to vent about things we don’t always see eye to eye on with parenting. Today was a perfect example and I started to feel overwhelmed by his venting because I didn’t agree. I felt myself shutting down. But I did validate his feelings without having to agree after I quickly found and read this article. Thanks.

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Jessica,

      Thank you for taking the time to share. It’s not always an easy thing to do, so kudos to you for putting it into practice.

      Michael

  3. Great article but how do validate someone’s feeling when they are angry with you, which you feel they are not justified or and being irrational?

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Karleen,

      Excellent question—I think I’ll write a post about how to address that specifically. Subscribe to the blog to be notified when it posts!

      Michael

  4. Hi Michael! Thanks for the great and interesting articles. These really have me thinking about some positive changes I can make I’m my relationships. I’m also interested in the question above about providinv validation when someone is angry at you but you don’t agree with them as to the reason why they are angry. How can I subscribe to your blog so that I can see that article if it gets posted in the future? I could not find an option to do that.

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Cody,

      Thrilled to hear you’re finding the content valuable. Regarding subscribing to the blog, there is now a form available at the very bottom of the page to subscribe. (You’re not crazy—it wasn’t there until this morning. 😉 )

      I’m hoping to get that article up early next week and will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

      Michael

  5. What if validating people is exhausting for me? I feel like I spend a lot of time being peoples’ sounding board and it makes me feel like their counselor rather than simply a coworker, employee, or aquaintance where I just want a superficial but productive relationship. Do I just have to suck it up because we both exist in the same space and have to work or have hobbies together? I notice people that are more insecure seem to need validation most often. It makes me tired and I don’t completely understand it because I don’t find myself needing outside validation all that often from most people. Any thoughts or advice on this?

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hey Steph(?),

      I’m glad you’ve brought this up, as you’re not the first to pose the question, and I’m getting it enough that I have begun a more in-depth article on the subject. (Update: the article can now be found here.)

      The short answer is this: you do not need to always be at people’s beck and call, and you should always tend to your own emotional health and happiness first, before trying to help others. (Think of the “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others” principle from airline safety briefings). Most everyone will run into situations like what you’ve described—where no matter how much you validate, the other person keeps coming back for more and it begins to damage the relationship.

      Depending on the nature of that relationship, you’ll either set boundaries, give them feedback on how their negative attitude is affecting you, change the way you interact with them, or simply work away from having a relationship with them. I’ll put some thoughts together into a more formal article in the next week or so, so subscribe to the blog or check back later.

      Michael

      1. Hello Michael!

        I had such a great read. I have a friend who has never opened up to me before and suddenly he’s started messaging me about a concern of his so I wanted to be a good listener as much as I can for him, thanks for the tips. I replied here because I would like to know if you’ve written another article regarding this concern, because I kind of relate to SS to.

        Let me know and I’d be glad to read, thanks!

  6. Thank you for the great insights. it’s very helpful. It will help me in my day-to-day relationships and in writing my book to be more understanding of the readers’ feelings in a friendly way.

  7. Very helpful article. Love the way you included a great example/ the meaning of empathy as an example of how to show validation without agreement: “I understand why you’d think that—I’d be just as [ ], given the same background, limited information, emotional state, etc.”
    For me, it’s helpful to separate validation from justification; and by that I mean, I can validate someone’s experience without justifying their response to that experience.
    Validating someone’s experience is expressing empathy towards that person. I experience validation as a away to show respect for another human being.

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Bugsy,

      “I experience validation as a way to show respect for another human being.” <-- I absolutely love that. You're spot on!Michael

  8. So how does validation work in extreme circumstances? For example, with an abusive person? If someone beats up their wife and talks to you about it, how does validation work? If Hitler were to sit down with you and discuss about how he was intending to gas millions of Jews how would validation work? If a person is always late to work by two hours and you address it, and their response is to say ‘they don’t think it is a problem and they think it’s ok’, how does validation work? If someone tells someone they are nauseating and the person charged with being this says being told they are nauseating is upsetting, and the person who said it, plays a game saying ‘they don’t see saying someone is nauseating as a negative’? How does validation work in such situations? Are we never allowed to tell someone they are wrong?

    In such instances isn’t it healthier to not validate? I am not being disingenuous, people have been talking a lot about validation and I am struggling to understand how to apply it it heinous and egregious situations. I have looked everywhere and can’t find dialogue on ‘validation’ in these situations and I want to understand.

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Dave,

      My recent article, When Validation is Not the Answer, may address at least a few of your questions. Your question about whether we need to just be okay when people are always late, or people who don’t accept our feedback or requests to change, is addressed in my podcast episode and article on boundaries.

      In general, though, heinous and egregious circumstances are absolutely not going to be solved by simply validating. Instead, I’d encourage you to look at validation as a tool—one that can likely still play an important role in the conversation or intervention—to help reach the best possible outcome.

      Michael

  9. After reading several of your articles, It is quite obvious that your responses follow your advice on how to validate when you don’t agree. I also read in another article that your wife uses this method as well. I’m curious…if both people are aware of the method, does it sometimes get viewed as more of a “tactic” to politely disagree than a sincere validation of their feelings?

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Steven,

      Thank you for commenting. I actually addressed that very question in the following article: https://michaelssorensen.com/does-validation-lose-its-power-when-both-people-know-about-it/

      In short: yes, there can be times when validation feels more clinical than sincere, or when I’m consciously aware of someone validating me. It really all boils down to sincerity, though. If someone disagrees with me, yet is able to effectively validate the points they *can* agree on, it’s every bit as effective and appreciated.

      Michael

  10. This is most needed for Feelers (NF and SF) in MBTI terms. They require the most handholding to have conversations with. When I’m talking to Thinkers (NTs and STs) I don’t have to spend an hour validating them until they feel understood enough for me to give my opinion.

    So, what do I do– I just say what I feel needs to be said, and if it turns off the more emotional types, then so be it. I’m willing to engage and explain myself, and if they can’t help this with a ton of coddling, then too bad???

    I just get sick of the more emotional types always acting so tyrannical in these situations because when I’m dealing with thinkers we can disagree, give corrections, share opinions and keep things flowing without caring if one person is upset.

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi MeetMeHalfway,

      I don’t blame you for a second for not wanting to sit and validate people for hours on end. And I don’t. I am a big proponent of boundaries, and strong believer that we are all responsible for our own happiness. (I preach often that we cannot “make” other people angry, “make” them sad, etc. nor should we try to.)

      I have also found that, in most situations, I can validate someone and get right into my feedback in a matter of minutes—if not seconds. I’m not at all a proponent of coddling or walking on eggshells around people. We can be empathic and validating, while also being direct, assertive, boundaried, and efficient.

      As with anything in life, there is a need to find the proper balance in difficult conversations. Certainly, if it’s working for you to get right to the point and duke it out with others, and all ends well with respect and understanding, then more power to you!

      Michael

  11. My girlfriend forwarded me your article. She has a friend that relayed a bad experience at a home improvement store and wanted me to validate her friend’s feelings through her anger for her friend. I didn’t want to do that because neither one of us were there to experience what her friend did, now she’s pissed at me.

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Chris,

      I’m not certain I understand the situation – your girlfriend wanted you to validate her friend?

      Michael

  12. Also, had that happened to her personally, not only what I have validated her feelings, I would have gone down to the store and handled it myself.

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