Many people tend to confuse sympathy, empathy, and validation, and there is indeed significant overlap between the three concepts. However, sympathy is when we see other’s experiences through our own lens and react accordingly. When empathizing, we try to relate to other’s experiences the way they are experiencing them. Lastly, validation is merely expressing your belief that someone else’s experience is inherently valid.
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There’s the stereotypical argument that is said to occasionally unfold between men and women: the woman may be upset about something, and tells the man about it, who then proceeds to try and find ways to fix the problem, despite the woman claiming over and over, “I just want you to listen!”
Validation has a big role to play in validating negative feelings or supporting those experiencing stress. Psychologists originally explored its power in helping people who feel suicidal or deeply distressed, but soon put the principle of validation at the center of all their work. After all, when people seek mental health care, they are often simply seeking comfort and reassurance.State University published a:
For example, most people don’t respond well to being told (subtly or not so subtly) how to feel. For example, most of us bristle at platitudes like “there there, don’t cry now” or “come on, try to look at the good side.” Instead, it may be more effective to simply enquire about how the person actually is feeling, rather than telling them to feel some other way. This way, they can express themselves and reach their own conclusions, deciding for themselves what action to take next.
The authors also found that it’s best to avoid language that minimizes feelings. For example, if someone has just confided in you that they are feeling severely depressed, it’s obviously not a good idea to shake it off as “the blues” and tell them they just need a good night’s sleep. It’s true that these comments may come from a good place, but they could actually have the opposite effect. If someone feels judged, controlled, ignored or ridiculed, they’ll obviously feel less inclined to take the help offered, even if it’s sincere.
The trouble is that these sorts of comments may well have been beneficial in another context. Offering advice or helpful suggestions is usually just people’s way of trying to be useful. They may indeed be very skilled communicators and have the best of intentions. But, importantly, validation is not like other communication techniques. The purpose and outcome of validation is completely different to, say, offering advice or giving helpful feedback.
To return to the stereotypical argument we began with, the man might say (quite rightly) that he is attempting to help, that his solution would work, and that the woman is being ridiculous by continuing to be upset when a perfectly good solution is right in front of her. But the woman might say (quite rightly) that she hasn’t asked for advice or problem-solving; she wants comfort, that is, validation.
In a way, validation digs a little deeper than most communication skills and techniques, and gets to the heart of our emotional experience. You can be an excellent listener, compassionate, intelligent and great at offering useful advice, but none of it matters if what is needed is direct validation.
So, we’ve seen the kind of things we shouldn’t say, but what do you say to someone to validate their experience?
Remember, when we provide validation, we are communicating that someone’s experience, and they themselves, are inherently valid. So, we can use phrases like:
• “It’s understandable you’d feel that way.”
• “Yes, that makes sense. I can see why you say that.”
• “It’s perfectly normal that you think that.”
• “I’m sorry that you’re having a hard time with this.”
• “Can you tell me more about how you’re feeling?”
• “I can see why you feel XYZ.”
When validating someone, sometimes the best thing we can do for them is to simply create a little space for them to be as they are. Often, we’re compelled to jump in and say something, anything, but that’s just because we ourselves are uncomfortable. It’s possible to communicate a great deal of compassion and acceptance with simple sounds like “uh-huh” and “mmm” or simply listening and nodding. This way, you are lavishing your full attention of the other person, without trying to push your own interpretation.
Validation rests on centering the other person. This means that the person and their experience are the priority—and other people’s opinions, society’s expectations, judgments, and criticisms are set aside. To center someone means to acknowledge that the individual themselves is the ultimate authority on their own inner experience. So, if they express that they are feeling scared even though it looks to you and everyone else like anger, you take their word for it and assume that yes, in their internal experience, they are scared.