Validation - Responding Well to Hurting People
The way we respond to a person who is sharing something close to their heart is really important – if we respond in a good way, we can develop trust and self-confidence, but if our response is negative, we risk not only hurting them, but shutting them down so they don’t share again in the future, or even feel ashamed about what they have shared.
In any relationship, it’s important that we help our friends and family feel safe to be open and honest about what’s going on for them, even if we don’t necessarily agree with their side of the story or we think they could be handling it better. Most people don’t want advice straightaway – they want validation.
Validation is simply what happens when you share something that you’ve been going through, and someone says, ‘I totally get what you’re saying’, or ‘Yeah, that’s really unfair’. It’s telling the person that 'yes, what you went through was wrong' (or disappointing, or tragic). 'Yes, of course you’re hurt – I would be too.' 'I know I haven’t been through what you have exactly, but I can imagine how upset you must be.' 'Yeah, she was totally out of line when she said that to you – that’s really rude.' In short, we acknowledge the person’s right the be hurt. We visit that dark place with them. But, we don’t camp there – we help them out one step at a time.
Generally, people just want to know that someone understands why they are upset. This helps them to not feel so alone, or like they’re going insane. Sometimes if they’re being treated badly by someone, that person may be purposefully making them feel like they’re at fault, so getting another person’s validation – a confirmation that they're not going insane or that it’s not just in their heads – can be a great relief. This doesn’t mean the listener doesn’t give advice if that is ultimately what the person is seeking and we feel qualified to give it, but empathy should always be the first port of call. The truth is, most people can work out what they need to do on their own, so long as they have the opportunity to talk about it.
As mentioned, negative responses can shut people down instead. Some examples of this include:
Pointing out what they are doing wrong (‘You aggravated the situation by getting so upset.’)
Getting aggressive (‘I don’t understand you!’)
Psycho-analysing the situation straightaway/justifying the other person (‘Well, maybe the other person has serious issues and that’s why they hit you/rejected you’). This may be helpful later, but not straight after an incident. It indicates that the listener is more interested in solving the problem than in really understanding how the speaker is feeling.
Being critical or judgmental (‘I wouldn’t have said that…’ ‘What were you thinking?’)
Mocking their emotions (‘Why are you crying over it?’)
Being silent, or changing the subject.
Intended or not, being silent (having no response at all) tells the person you don’t really care what’s happening with them and/or don’t value their vulnerability. It can also embarrass them, and add to their stress as they try to interpret the silence (‘Do they think I’m an idiot?’ ‘Why did I say that …?’ ‘I must sound stupid!’ ‘Obviously they don’t care as much as I thought they did.’). In some cases, no response can be the most hurtful response. The person hasn’t been heard or validated. Why do some people fail to respond to an upset friend? Maybe they just don’t know what to say. Maybe they’ve got their own problems. Maybe they haven’t seen their friend like this before, and they don’t know how to take it. Maybe they just don’t care, or don’t value the problem. All of these can be overcome by the listener choosing to value the speaker more than their own concerns.
People usually let us know when they’re open to advice by their language: ‘I really don’t know what to do.’ ‘George said I should …’ ‘Maybe I could try this … but I’m not sure.’ Or something more obvious: ‘What do you think?’ Advice should be empathetic, remembering that unless their decision will impact our life directly, we can’t demand them to do what we think they should. Sometimes it is even helpful to say things like, ‘this is what I think, but that’s just my opinion. At the end of the day, it’s your decision and you have to do what’s right for you’.
In terms of validation, mostly we’re talking about people who have genuinely gone through a difficult time. Other situations are more clear-cut. If a person is agonising about doing something that is clearly wrong (criminal activity, for example), then it is more than appropriate to discourage them in blunt terms. Sometimes the person sharing is actually the one at fault, and may need some home truths before they see it, stop playing the victim and correct their behaviour. Thirdly, if you find yourself having the same conversation about the same issue over and over and the person isn’t making any effort to improve their situation, there may come a time when advice needs to be more direct. It is unhealthy when talking becomes whinging – that is, when the motivation isn’t to process what’s happened and to find a way forward, but to get attention or sympathy.
Often though, people who have experienced difficult situations do need to talk several times before they can really get their head around it. We may find this annoying and become intolerant, but sometimes by just listening we are helping them to process challenging events. ‘Baggage’ can be thought of as a bag full of small rocks that people carry around with them. Each time they talk about what happened, it’s the equivalent of giving one of the rocks away. Eventually, they will have no more ‘rocks’ left, and will come to peace about the event they were struggling with. This may take a day. It may take years. It depends on the situation. But eventually, if they do talk about it again, it will most likely be to support someone else.
We can hinder the process by giving negative responses and stop them from talking at all, resulting in them hanging onto their baggage alone and for a long time. Or, we can value a person and the honour they show us in sharing their story by responding in a way that is helpful, caring, and validating.
For more on specific active listening techniques, check out Are You an Active Listener?