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.
“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.