Prefer to listen? Check out the related episode from the I Hear You podcast.
Have you ever seen the YouTube video, It’s Not About the Nail? Hilarious. What makes it so funny is the fact that, while ridiculous, it’s actually not all that far from the truth.
That’s because we as humans have a deep-seated need for connection—regardless of our age, gender, or background. (Yes, men need it just as much as women). We need to feel heard, understood, and appreciated; and that feeling comes—in large part—from validation.
Validation is, in essence, the act of helping someone feel heard and understood. It has the power to calm fears and concerns, add a boost to joy and excitement, avoid or quickly resolve arguments, make people much more open to your advice, and much more. I stumbled across this skill a few years ago while working with a therapist, and it has had such a significant impact on my relationships (romantic, professional, and otherwise), that I wrote an entire book about it to try to pay it forward.
In other words: it’s awesome.
A Little Background
I dated a woman a while back who was great at listening but terrible at validating. As I would relate an exciting or difficult experience to her, she would often sit there with an unemotional look on her face and, when I finished talking, look at me as if to say, “Anything else?”
I hit a breaking point one evening after sharing something I was particularly excited about. As I finished the story (and calmed down a bit, as I tend to get quite animated in my storytelling), I looked at her and saw that same rather blank look on her face.
“Cool!” she said.
And that was it.
I paused for a moment longer, expecting her to follow up with “That’s so exciting!” or “Then what did you do?” or something that showed me she actually cared about what I had just shared. I had been talking for several minutes, so a one-word response was surely not all she was going to give.
She just looked back at me with that same plain (though pleasant) look on her face and eventually asked, “What?”
Okay. What was going on here? She listened to my story, didn’t interrupt, and seemed pleasant enough in her one-word response. What was I expecting?
What I was expecting—and quite literally craving at this point in our relationship—was validation. I wanted to feel like she saw, understood, and shared in my excitement. I wasn’t telling her the story because I liked talking; I was sharing it with her in the hope that she would see my excitement and get excited with me. I was hoping we would connect over the shared experience.
As I returned home that evening, I did as any healthy, productive, responsible human being would do and started mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. After a few minutes, I came across a link to an article on Business Insider titled “Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down to 2 Basic Traits.” Intrigued, I clicked through and began to read.
The article discussed studies conducted by psychologist John Gottman who, for the previous four decades, had studied thousands of couples in an effort to figure out what makes relationships work. Seeking to better understand why some couples have healthy, lasting relationships while others do not, Gottman and his colleagues decorated their lab at the University of Washington to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast. They invited 130 newlywed couples to spend a day at the retreat and watched as they did what most people do on a typical weekend—prepare meals, chat, clean, and hang out.
As Gottman studied the interactions of each couple, he began to notice a pattern. Throughout the day, partners would make small, seemingly insignificant requests for connection from each other. For example, a husband would look out the window and say, “Wow, check out that car!” He wasn’t just commenting on the car, though; he was looking for his wife to respond with shared interest or appreciation. He was hoping to connect—however momentarily—over the car. Gottman calls these requests for connection “bids.”
The wife could then choose to respond positively (“Wow, that is nice!”), negatively (“Ugh, that’s hideous”), or passively (“Mmm, that’s nice, dear”). Gottman refers to positive and engaging responses as “turning toward” the bidder, and negative and passive responses as “turning away.” As it turned out, the way couples responded to these bids had a profound effect on their marital well-being.
Gottman found that couples who had divorced during the six-year follow-up period had “turn-toward bids” just 33 percent of the time—meaning only three in ten of their requests for connection were met with interest and compassion.
In contrast, couples who remained together after the six-year period had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nearly nine times out of ten, the healthy couples were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
Now here’s the kicker: by observing these types of interactions, Gottman can apparently predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—rich or poor, gay or straight, young or mature—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy, several years down the road.
As I sat at my computer reading this article, something clicked. A surge of insight and validation (with a hint of vindication) flooded my body. This is what my relationship was missing! I was indeed making multiple “bids” or requests for connection each day, but felt like my girlfriend only “turned toward me” a small fraction of the time.
I was familiar with the concept of validation by this time and had become quite adept at offering it to others, but I hadn’t yet learned to recognize when I needed it. As I read the article, I realized that what Gottman refers to as “turning toward” another individual is simply another way to describe validation—showing interest in and affirming the worth of another person’s comments, requests, or emotions.
This new insight opened my eyes to a clear reality: validation is critical for building healthy, satisfying relationships. What’s more, it’s critical for any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Thus, the core idea of my book is that, in order to become a “great listener,” you actually need to become a great validator.
How to Validate
Alright, enough storytelling. Let’s talk about how to validate effectively.
Effective validation has two main components:
- It identifies a specific emotion
- It offers justification for feeling that emotion
For example, let’s say you’re talking with your significant other at the end of a long day. You can tell something is bothering them, so you ask what’s up.
“Ugh, I can’t stand Kate!” they say. “You know this work event we’ve been planning? She keeps changing the plans and doesn’t seem to listen to—or care at all about—what the rest of us want to do. It’s driving me crazy!”
What would you say? While it may be tempting to jump in with advice or assurance, research has shown that choosing to validate first, before offering any advice or assurance, is often the best way to help. So, you might say something like:
“Serious? Ugh, that would drive me crazy!”
Notice how that response 1) identifies a specific emotion (feeling crazy), and 2) offers justification for feeling that emotion (you would feel the same way). By holding off on the advice for a moment, and instead showing that you hear and understand where your significant other is coming from, you demonstrate respect and appreciation in a way that will instantly strengthen your connection.
Sound easy? It is. But can it really make that much of a difference? You’d be surprised.
There are, of course, countless ways to validate. As long as you show the other person that you recognize and accept their emotions, you’re validating:
- “Wow, that would be confusing.”
- “He really said that? I’d be angry too!”
- “Ah, that is so sad.”
- “You have every right to be proud; that was a major accomplishment!”
- “I’m so happy for you! You’ve worked incredibly hard on this. It must feel amazing.”
Notice again how each of these responses refers to a specific emotion and shows some justification for or acceptance of it. Including both elements of validation shows the other person that you not only hear them, you understand them.
Invalidating responses are often born out of good intentions, but they do anything but help. An invalidating response is anything that minimizes or dismisses another person’s feelings:
- “You’ll be fine.”
- “It could be worse!”
- “At least it’s not [fill in the blank].”
- “Just put a smile on your face and tough it out.”
- “Don’t worry; things will work out.”
- “It’s not that big of a deal.”
More often than not, these types of responses actually make the situation worse. They suggest that the other person is being irrational and/or “shouldn’t” feel the way they are—the very opposite of how they’re hoping to feel by talking with you. Learn to catch these responses and change them into validating ones, and you’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.
Got it? Try it.
The next time someone shares something with you (an experience, fear, concern, hope, dream, etc.), try validating them. Get into the experience with them, identify the emotion they’re feeling, and show that you understand why they’re feeling it. It’s surprisingly connecting.
This is a broad, high-level look at validation. For a deeper dive, including dozens of real-life examples and actionable approaches to deepening your connection with others, check out my book, I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships.
How to Validate Someone When You Don’t Agree With Them
How Do You Validate Someone When They’re Angry With You?
What To Do If Your Partner Isn’t Great at Listening or Validating
When Validation is *Not* the Answer
How to Validate: The Four-Step Method
Does Validation Lose Its Power When Both People Know About It?