Stop Listening to Respond and Start Listening to Understand: A Word on Validation

Stop Listening to Respond and Start Listening to Understand: A Word on Validation


Porter Macey, Ph.D., LMFT. Clinic Director 

May 12, 2020

The popular novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey tells a fictional story of a dysfunctional mental ward in the 1950s. One of the main characters and narrator, Chief Bromden hasn’t talked in years. He has been silent for so long that the hospital staff believe him to be deaf and mute. As the story unfolds the reader begins to learn more about Chief Bromden’s decision to remain silent and a story is told to explain his reasons. As a young Native American, government officials would show up at his house and try to buy land his tribe owned. His father was Chief of the tribe. As you can imagine, a young Native American was easily ignored by the government employees and as he grew he found that most people were not interested in what he had to say. His logic, if they don’t care what I think why should I talk at all.

Verbal communication is one of the more effective ways to build a relationship with someone. It allows us to express our thoughts and desires using details unmatched by other forms of communication. We are permitted access to the hopes and dreams of the people we care about. We can even solve problems and work out compromises when more than one person doesn’t see eye to eye. Validating and feeling validated is one of the most important, if not the most important communication skill when trying to build or maintain an important relationship. If someone does not feel validated it is easy for that person to shut down, communicate in a passive aggressive way, build resentments, or just stop trying altogether.

In the simplest terms, validation is showing someone their thoughts, actions, words, and feelings are meaningful to you. There are a lot of ways to do this. Reflective listening is one validation technique that can be used in all conversations. This is when you tell someone what you just heard. It can be simple like, “you felt sad” or more involved, “what I heard you say was you did not feel important when you were overlooked for the promotion”. This does not “fix” the feeling. No form of validation is designed to “fix” anything. What it does do is, shows the person talking that what they are saying matters to you. Their feelings are meaningful, and you are willing to be with them and allow those feelings to be experienced. Another validation technique is emotion offerings. In the movie Inside Out, Bing Bong loses his rocket in the memory dump (if you don’t know what I am talking about ask someone with kids). Sadness approaches him and says, “I’m sorry they took your rocket. They took something that you loved, it’s gone forever”. After a bit of conversation Sadness then offers, “that’s sad”. Bing Bong hadn’t told Sadness how he was feeling but by putting herself in his shoes she offered an empathic emotional offering. This type of validation shows the person we care about that it’s OK to feel what they are feeling, we get it and we are with them. When using this technique, always err on the side of overstating the emotions as opposed to understating. It would not have had the same impact if sadness would have said, “man what a bummer”. Even if we don’t guess the correct emotion we open the door for deeper and more meaningful conversation, and the person we are with can correct us.

So how do we validate others when we disagree with them? This is a question that I get asked a lot. My answer, you validate them exactly the same way you would if you did agree with them. Validating and agreeing are not the same thing. Even if someone is saying something that we think is incorrect or expressing a view we don’t align with, we still need to show that person their perspective and experience is meaningful. If you show someone that you value their perspective they will be more likely to value your perspective.

A word on right and wrong. If you have been a client of mine, odds are you have heard me say, “what’s right and wrong just depends on who you ask.” As humans we learn right and wrong through experiences, either our own experiences or the experiences of others. With our experiences come our perspectives. We often confuse perspective with objective truths. Just a little over 100 years ago women couldn’t vote. Many people thought it was wrong for a woman to vote, but as our perspective as a society shifts, most people would laugh at anyone who tried to convince them women should not vote. Another example is a movie. Everyone sees the same movie, some will tell you it’s amazing and others will tell you it’s awful. Both are right and both are wrong, it just depends on who you ask. So when you are having a conversation and it feels like you just cannot get your point across, try validating the other person. Hopefully you will receive the same respect and notice the positive change validation can have on your conversations.



2 thoughts on “Stop Listening to Respond and Start Listening to Understand: A Word on Validation”

  1. Rex Macey says:

    Porter that was beautifully stated. I’m going to have all my staff read this. How can I get a copy?

    1. Amber Creek says:

      Thank you! I will make sure you get one!

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