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How to Avoid Invalidating Others
19th July 2021 • Social Skills Coaching • Patrick King
00:00:00 00:17:23

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Some of the most common ways in which we might invalidate others include using undermining language, having judgmental attitudes, trying to fix another person’s problems when they just want to be heard, etc. Avoid using words like “but” by replacing them with “and” while also being mindful of your tone while conversing. Don’t exercise judgement and remember that you are not being asked for a solution, the other person simply wants their thoughts to be heard.

When someone invalidates you, it’s essential to establish clear boundaries, especially if the other person is close to you. If not, you may simply choose to end the conversation and cease contact. But if they are close, you’ll want to calmly use “I” statements to convey how the invalidation made you feel and set boundaries that establish how you want to be treated in the future.

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Avoiding invalidating others is, in many ways, one of the first necessary steps to becoming good at validating them. The validation steps outlined in the previous chapter will undoubtedly convey kind, attentive acceptance to the person you’re talking to, but you can imagine all that can go straight down the drain if you end the whole process with a comment like, “OK great, I’m glad you’re done having your little breakdown now!”

Being a great communicator means being on guard for those times we might unconsciously invalidate others. Sadly, validation is not a skill people are taught directly, and we may have developed plenty of bad communication habits and assumptions that actually do quite a lot of harm when we engage with someone who is feeling vulnerable or distressed.

For example, a new mother might be expressing her extreme distress in the weeks after childbirth, and confide in a friend that she’s having really dark thoughts. The friend, trying to reassure her, downplays the situation, but ends up invalidating her when she says something like, “That’s just baby blues, don’t you worry, it’ll pass, I promise.” The new mother is left feeling just as bad as before, but silly or ashamed for even bringing it up.

Or consider a doctor who is trying to put her nervous patient at ease by saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve seen this all before, trust me…and it can be a lot worse than what you’ve got here.” Instead of calming the patient, this comment makes him feel like his problem, as distressing as it is to him, isn’t as important as other people’s.

Similarly, we can cause enormous damage by invalidating positive emotions too. Consider someone who laughs at his friend’s childlike excitement at going to a theme park and playfully teases him for being over the top, not realizing that his friend never had the experience in childhood, and that by telling him to calm down, he’s made him feel ashamed for what could have been a positive moment.

In none of these examples are the people necessarily bad communicators, and they certainly don’t have bad intentions. Nevertheless, to master validation means paying more attention to how we might be invalidating others anyway. We’ve explored all the validating methods to actively try, but now let’s consider in detail what not to do.

Challenge 1: Undermining language

It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it! It’s common to come across as invalidating when you assume that only the actual verbal content of your communication counts. But the way you speak, and the nonverbal message you send is just as (if not more) important. Think about how much tone of voice can change the statement, “Why did you do that?” Posture, facial expression, tone and gesture can change this statement from a gentle, curious inquiry to a full-blown accusation.

It’s obvious that if we want to avoid invalidating others, we should refrain from using outright hostile language, name-calling, or negative words that make others feel bad. But we can also communicate invalidation subtly, for example by the indiscriminate use of the word “but.” This tiny word has a way of cancelling out any positive expression that comes before it, and cementing the negative that comes after it. If you say, “That was great, but I’m wondering about page two,” the other person might only hear “I’m unhappy about page two.”

A good trick is to replace every “but” with “and” or simply cut it out entirely. “That was great! And I also had a few questions about page two.” Sounds better, doesn’t it? “But” is a word of contradiction. Think about any apology that goes, “I’m sorry, but…” It doesn’t ever really feel like an apology!

To be more validating, it’s also a good idea to avoid confrontational language, like addressing the person with “you” statements. These can feel provocative and even aggressive. Try to avoid telling people what they think or feel, e.g. “you’re just tired right now” (even if you believe it’s true!”). Eliminate words like should, must, have to and so on. You are not interested in what someone should feel or do—it’s far more useful to talk about what they actually feel or have done. In the same way, words like always, never, completely, etc. can feel extreme and shut down conversation.

Use “I” statements to take responsibility for your own perspective and respect the other person’s. There’s a big difference between “you’re confusing me” and “I’m confused.” Avoid diagnosing someone, interpreting their actions, or explaining their experience to them. Share your own side, and invite them to share theirs without accusation, judgment or assumption.

Challenge 2: Judgmental attitudes

Nobody likes to think they’re judgmental. On the other hand, a judgment occurs any time we look at something and appraise its value—hardly something we can avoid in life. When someone is talking to you, it can be a knee-jerk reaction to rush in with your own opinions and value judgments. In fact, human beings do this almost as a default, and often in more subtle ways than they know.

Firstly, when hearing someone talk, try to let go of the idea that it’s your job (or anyone’s) to figure out who’s to blame, or decide on the “right” conclusion. For example, someone might be complaining to you about another person that insulted them, and you go into detective mode and try to see if an insult really was given, and how bad it was, and how much of a right the person has to be offended. When we put ourselves in the position of moral judge, we instantly turn off the option for empathetic and open-minded listening.

Fairy tales have villains and heroes, but most of the time, life doesn’t. When people express themselves, they simply want to be heard, rather than strictly to be agreed with or told they’re actually wrong. Those in positions of relative power might assume that it’s their job to frame the story they hear and decide which reactions and feelings are correct, according to their own worldviews. This can be deeply invalidating for the person opening up and sharing.

We also end up imparting judgment when we decide on the correct magnitude of feelings or actions. When you express, consciously or unconsciously, that someone’s experience is too much or too little, you are invalidating them. For example, by saying, “That’s not such a big deal” or “you really need to be a bit more worried about this,” you are passing judgment on the size and appropriateness of that person’s emotions. But, it’s never our right to tell people either what to feel, or how much of it to feel!

Challenge 3: Offering advice or going into fixing mode

We need to consistently remind ourselves of why people express themselves to us or seek our reassurance. It’s seldom because they don’t know how to fix the problem. It’s because they want to be heard and validated, and to feel support for what they’re going through. In other words, it’s hardly ever a practical issue, but an emotional one. By offering practical advice, we leave the emotional need on the table, which can feel extremely invalidating.

Wanting to fix often comes from a good place, but can have the effect of making the other person feel invisible. Try not to ignore or minimize their feelings by rushing in with a solution. Chances are, they already know what to do and how to do it; they just need to be listened to, soothed, accepted or reassured.

Watch out for subtle ways of “fixing” such as asking, “Have you thought of XYZ?”—especially if XYZ is an obvious thing the person would have already considered. Avoid taking responsibility, and trying to make it your job to cheer the person up or solve all their problems. If you act as though the issue is a simple one that can be sorted out easily, you are in essence erasing the person’s difficulties and struggles, as though to say, “If you could only see the solution as clearly as I can, then you wouldn’t be so upset! Ta da!”

In the same way, advice is not a good idea unless it’s explicitly asked for. Avoid things like, “If I were you…” or “what I usually do for this problem is…” The advice may seem relevant to you, but it might not feel that way to the other person. Remember, it’s not about you—at all.

Challenge 4: Insincerity

Though we seldom think about it, there are culturally ingrained ways of soothing distressed people. We all have a mental model of what a good friend, or a kind mother, or a compassionate counsellor sounds like, and we might not even realize that we’re defaulting to cliched expressions like, “How does that make you feel?” or “Shhh, it’s going to be OK.”

Though these stereotyped ways of responding to other people’s emotions might have had genuine origins, the truth is that they often end up sounding insincere. Simply blurting out an automatic response or some truism that’s supposed to be helpful usually doesn’t actually help. Think of boring aphorisms like “time heals all wounds” or “you’re stronger than you think!”

For validation to work, it has to feel real. The other person has to feel like they are having a genuine encounter with someone who really does understand and accept them, on a human level. How many people revert to what they think of as a kind, sympathetic voice, but which can sound to others incredibly condescending and irritating? A tilt of the head, an expression of “concern” and a fake-sounding “aw, how awful for you!” is likely to be received as an insult or brush-off rather than genuine care.

“You’ll be OK, I promise” or “everything’s going to be just fine” are empty phrases that not only fail to soothe, but tell the other person that you are not really listening, and don’t have anything genuine to say. After all, how does anybody know how things will turn out? Even if the person will be OK in the future, what do they do with the fact that they don’t feel OK right now?”

Overcoming Invalidation

We’ll finish this chapter with a consideration of what to do if you yourself feel invalidated. As you might have noticed already, the reasons people invalidate one another are many, including simple carelessness. But one thing to remember is that invalidation has nothing to do with the person receiving it. It doesn’t reflect on their worth as people.

The principle flowing through this entire book is that emotions, thoughts and lived experiences cannot be wrong. They are only what they are, and it is not for other people (or even for us) to decide they are not valid. If we feel invalidated, we might respond as though to an injury, and want to defend ourselves. We might double down in trying to make ourselves understood, or seek extra reassurance.

However, before you jump to react, ask yourself a few important questions to determine whether it’s even worth it to try and reason with the person who has invalidated you. Ask yourself if the person is close to you, and whether they’ve made genuine attempts to understand you in the past. Is it really a good use of your time and energy to tell them they’ve invalidated you? Does their opinion even matter to you? Is this the right time to bring up their invalidation, or might it be perceived better if you did it later? If, after considering these questions, you believe it fit to respond, follow these steps:

1. First, don’t accept the invalidation. Process what it feels like, but know it doesn’t define you or your experience.

2. Communicate calmly and with “I” statements about how the invalidation has affected you.

3. Depending on the outcome of this, you can assert a boundary or choose to end the conversation entirely.

4. If you are routinely invalidated by someone, it might be time to consider the value that relationship holds in your life.

The important thing to remember here is that you must not get into a debate about whether their invalidation or your desire for validation is right or wrong. You are merely establishing a boundary about how you want to be treated. What the boundary should be is entirely up to you and can vary based on how exactly you were invalidated.

In learning how to validate others, we ourselves become better at asserting our own confidence and boundaries. Use mantras or mottos (like “all feelings are valid”) to remind yourself that you have a right to your experience. You can never demand that people praise, like or agree with you, but you can expect respect, and you are always allowed to walk away from relationships where your genuine experience is not respected.