Many of us are aware of the importance of validating other people’s feelings. We know recognizing and acknowledging feelings helps others to feel understood, valued, cared about, and important. We can easily recognize how abusive, mean-spirited, or hostile interactions involve a failure to validate feelings and, sometimes, purposeful attempts to be hurtful.
But well-intended exchanges among well-meaning people can also miss the mark on validating feelings and can cause people to feel a lack of support. Even during conversations where we feel tremendous compassion and want to help, it can be all too easy to unknowingly or unintentionally minimize and invalidate what the other person is trying to convey, ultimately creating more conflict or strong feelings of frustration, hurt, anger, and rejection.
In theory, acknowledging feelings is easy. Validating feelings doesn’t mean you accept or agree with the other person’s position; it simply means you acknowledge what they are saying. Yet, effectively acknowledging the emotions and experiences of others can at times be a challenge.
Let’s take the following simple example and explore seven ways failure to validate can occur. Imagine you didn’t get enough sleep last night and you feel utterly exhausted today. You complain to someone—your partner, parent, friend, or coworker—by saying, “I am so tired!” Consider how you might feel if any of the following reactions occurred:
1. Minimizing or Denying
“The day will be over soon enough!”
Many people are uncomfortable with feelings, especially negative ones. They don’t want to accept them, give them any power, or allow them to exist. People sometimes incorrectly believe that ignoring feelings will help them to diminish and ultimately disappear. However, this is rarely the case. Ignoring, minimizing, or denying feelings either causes them to amplify or results in other negative feelings, namely those of being hurt, isolated, or rejected.
2. Blaming or Scolding
“You shouldn’t have stayed up so late watching that movie!”
Sometimes people look for the reason behind negative feelings or difficult experiences. They assume pointing out the cause or giving a rationale may lessen the negative situation or, perhaps, prevent it from reoccurring. Attempting to teach a lesson has its place, but doing so without acknowledging present feelings typically closes off the person to hearing the message.
“You really need to get more sleep. Not getting enough sleep is bad for your immune system!”
Sometimes we unintentionally state our concern for others in a way that feels more like a lecture. Without first validating feelings or offering empathy, our message comes across as preachy and judgmental rather than well-intended, helpful, and supportive.
4. Unsolicited Advice
“You should start going to bed earlier. Try a relaxing bubble bath and stop looking at your iPad that late in the evening.”
People often want to be helpful, thus they jump to providing suggestions and advice. However useful the guidance may be, providing it too soon, prior to acknowledging feelings, can wind up feeling judgmental. It makes the messenger appear superior and can feel like there is an underlying implication of ignorance and incompetence.
“Why were you up so late last night?”
While asking questions can be helpful to get more information about the situation, asking them without first acknowledging feelings can come across as critical, uncaring, and dismissive. Intentionally or otherwise, questions can imply blame, which may ultimately make the person feel resentful, misunderstood, and more inclined to shut down.
6. Shifting Focus
“I was up so late last night because …”
We often connect with others over shared experiences and we tell our own stories as a way to relate to one another. However, shifting the focus to your own experience before first validating the experience of the other person can make you seem self-absorbed and can create distance.
“Oh, my gosh, I’m SO exhausted.”
When people want to be helpful, they are compelled to look for the solution, fix a problem, or remove any discomfort. But, delivered in the absence of validation, these approaches often backfire.
Similar to shifting the focus, we sometimes respond to somebody’s experience or emotions by sharing our own feelings. While the intent may be to connect over a common occurrence, such sharing can feel like a comparison that ultimately minimizes the person’s feelings and makes them feel ignored rather than understood.
I’m not saying any of these things are bad in and of themselves. They are all perfectly fine and useful approaches when delivered with appropriate timing and in appropriate circumstances. The problem lies in jumping to these things too soon without first acknowledging the feelings or empathizing with the situation. All of the above responses would likely be better received if they were prefaced by something to the effect of, “Being tired in the middle of the day is the worst!” Or, “I’m sorry you are so tired!” Offering validation prior to advice, motivation, wisdom, or sharing helps the subsequent message to come across as caring rather than dismissive.
When people want to be helpful, they are compelled to look for the solution, fix a problem, or remove any discomfort. But, delivered in the absence of validation, these approaches often backfire. It can be incredibly frustrating and unhelpful to feel talked at versus understood in the heat of the moment or when talking about personal emotions. Sharing feelings opens people up to being vulnerable. And when we feel vulnerable, we need validation, empathy, and understanding rather than tidbits of advice or storytelling.
Validating involves ensuring your first response is one of acknowledgment and empathy. Hearing “That really sucks!” or “That sounds so stressful!” is often more helpful than any of the lectures, questioning, or unsolicited advice that may follow. It may sound silly or like unnecessary fluff, but we are hardwired to need connection, and only in feeling heard do we truly feel connected, supported, and understood.
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