I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Path To Healthier Relationships

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The truly good listeners of the world do more than just listen — they listen, seek to understand, and they validate.

Have you ever talked to someone who clearly heard the words you were saying, but didn’t seem to get what you meant? Or maybe they understood your point, but were obviously disconnected from the emotion or weight of the situation? That person listened to you, but didn’t really hear you. Now, I know that hearing is technically a sense (i.e., our ears allow us to hear sound), but colloquially, we often use the phrase, “I hear you” to mean “I understand you” or “I get where you’re coming from.” It’s that kind of hearing — a true understanding and connection — that we crave. 

So that begs the question: how do you show someone you really hear them? This is where things get interesting. The truly good listeners of the world do more than just listen. They listen, seek to understand, and then validate. 

Validation is a way of pausing to truly understand and acknowledge another person’s feelings, rather than offering a quick fix of surface-level reassurance. Validation is something we all crave. We as humans are social creatures. We crave acceptance, appreciation, and a sense of belonging. In times of joy and success, we seek to share our excitement with others. In times of pain and sorrow, we seek comfort and support. Whichever way you slice it, we are hardwired for connection. As psychologist John Gottman noted in his forty years of couples research, we make dozens — if not hundreds — of requests for connection each day. More often than not (and whether we know it or not), we are looking for validation.

Validation (in the context of interpersonal skills, anyway) is the act of recognizing and affirming the validity or worth of a person’s emotions. Essentially, validation means saying to someone, “I hear you. I get what you’re feeling, and it’s perfectly alright to feel that way.”

Effective Validation Has Two Components

  • It identifies a specific emotion
  • It offers justification for feeling that emotion

For example, let’s say you’re out to lunch with a coworker. You’ve finished your meal and are chatting for a few more minutes before heading back to the office. You’ve noticed that she seems a bit distracted, frequently checking her phone and not being as present and engaged as she typically is. Curious, you ask what’s up.

“Oh…my daughter was supposed to call me when she got home from dance practice,” she says, “but I haven’t heard from her. I was expecting to hear from her an hour ago, so I’m a little worried.”

What would you say? Would you offer reassurance? (e.g., “Oh I’m sure she’s fine. You know how teenagers are. She probably just forgot.”) Or would you jump in with advice? (e.g., “You should call one of her friends!”) While both these responses might help, they would be even more effective if you first took a moment to validate. 

To validate your coworker in this situation, you would hold off on the advice and assurance for a moment and instead say something like, “I don’t blame you for being worried, especially if she told you she’d call an hour ago…”

Notice how that response 1) identifies a specific emotion (worry), and 2) offers justification for feeling that emotion (it’s been over an hour since she expected to hear from her daughter). This response shows your friend that you not only hear how she’s feeling, but that you understand why she’s feeling that way. While it may seem counterintuitive, choosing to validate your friend instead of offering solutions to her problem is likely the best way to help.

A study published in 2011 illustrates this point. Participants were asked to complete a number of difficult math problems during a short period of time, and then asked to report their emotional state (e.g. stressed, embarrassed, confident, etc.). The facilitator then responded with either a validating or invalidating comment. If the participant expressed frustration, for example, the researcher would respond with a comment such as, “Whoa, other people were frustrated, but not as much as you seem to be” (invalidating), or, “I don’t blame you — completing math problems without pencil and paper is frustrating!” (validating).

Participants were then asked to complete a second round of arithmetic and once again report their feelings. Their emotions were once again validated or invalidated, and the process was repeated a third and final time. Researchers measured participants’ response to the stress and feedback by tracking their heart rate and skin conductance levels (SCL), common measures of physiological response. When the experiment was complete, the information was gathered and analyzed, and trends, correlations, and insights recorded.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants who received invalidating responses showed a gradual increase in SCL, a prolonged stress response, and a steady increase in heart rate. They also reported regular increases in negative feelings after each round, despite being told “not to worry.” In other words, they were worrying, and they really weren’t enjoying the experiment.

Participants who had their emotions validated, however, had entirely different results. These individuals showed a significantly lower trajectory of SCL, reported nonsignificant changes in negative feelings, and actually showed a steady decrease in heart rate over the course of the experiment. It wasn’t just that their heart rate stayed flat, or rose at a slower rate than those who were invalidated; it actually went down, despite the fact that they continued to work through difficult problems. While they were exposed to the same stressors as the other group, those who had their feelings validated found it significantly easier to regulate their emotions and keep their cool.

More often than not, people who vent or complain already know how to handle their current situation — they’re just looking for someone to see and appreciate their struggle. While it seems almost counterintuitive, validation is often the quickest and easiest way to help people work through their concerns and get back on track.

There are, of course, countless ways to validate. As long as you show the other person that you recognize and accept their emotions, you’re validating. Any of the following comments would be validating in the appropriate context:

“Wow, that would be confusing.”

“He really said that? I’d be angry too!”

“Ah, that is so sad.”

“I totally get why you feel that way; I’ve been in a similar situation before and it was rough.”

“You have every right to be proud; that was a major accomplishment!”

“I’m so happy for you! You’ve worked incredibly hard on this. It must feel amazing.”

Notice again how each of these responses refers to a specific emotion and shows some justification for or acceptance of it. Including both elements of validation shows the other individuals that you not only hear them, you understand them. 

Invalidating Responses

Invalidating responses are often born out of good intentions, but they do anything but help. Society teaches us from an early age that there are certain emotions that we should and shouldn’t feel. Comments such as “don’t cry,” “don’t worry,” and “don’t be angry,” as well as “be happy,” “be more confident,” and “just enjoy the journey” all reinforce this idea. For some reason, we’ve grown uncomfortable with certain emotions and labeled them as bad. These often include worry, fear, anger, jealousy, pride, sadness, guilt, and uncertainty. At the same time, we’re told that we need to feel more of the good emotions. These typically include happiness, excitement, calm, confidence, and gratitude.

This may seem fine and dandy on the surface, but it starts to become a problem when we feel bad about ourselves for feeling a negative emotion. If I shouldn’t get angry — but I do — then maybe I’m a bad or angry person. If I’m worried about something that I shouldn’t be worried about, then maybe I’m irrational or overdramatic. If I’m afraid of something that I shouldn’t be afraid of, then perhaps I’m weak or a coward. These and other shame messages run rampant through our minds, all because we aren’t feeling the way we should.

The truth is there’s nothing inherently good or bad about any emotion. Emotions just are. They’re simply reactions to a situation. And, whether we like it or not, we’re going to feel a whole slew of them, each and every day, for the rest of our lives. William Shakespeare said it best: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It is how we interpret these emotions — and choose to handle them — that makes the difference. 

Anger, for example, gets a bad rap. While many let it lead them to violence, others let it lead them to positive action. Many of the most significant, positive changes in this world came about because individuals became angry about an injustice and let that anger drive them to do something about it.

So how does this judging of emotions relate to validation? Put simply, it completely undermines it. When we tell people they should or shouldn’t feel something, we risk making the situation worse. Think back to the previous study: telling participants to not worry (or otherwise suggesting that they were being irrational) added to their stress. Unfortunately, invalidating others is easy to do. For most people, it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction. How many times have you responded to a friend or family member with some variation of the following? 

“You’ll be fine.”

“It could be worse!”

“At least it’s not [fill in the blank].”

“Just put a smile on your face and tough it out.”

“Don’t worry; things will work out.”

“Stop complaining; you’re not the only one who’s hurting.”

“It’s not that big a deal.”

If you’re anything like me (or most people), one or more of these phrases probably sounds all too familiar. 

“But what if there’s really nothing to worry about?” you ask.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the other person is worrying and wants someone to see and appreciate that. Everyone — regardless of age, gender, or IQ — will find themselves in a similar situation from time to time, when they’re stressed or worried about something they shouldn’t be. When people are in that state, a simple “don’t worry” doesn’t help. If you instead show them that you see and appreciate what they’re feeling, they’ll either find a solution of their own, or become much more willing to listen to yours.

Knowing When To Validate

While everybody likes the feeling of validation, very few people know about it by name. They can sense when they are or aren’t receiving it, but rarely do they know what to call it. As a result, it’s unlikely that someone will approach you and outright say, “I could use a little validation.” So this begs the question: how do you know when to validate?

Requests for validation are far more common than you might expect. In my experience (admittedly lacking any form of scientific measurement), 80-90 percent of conversations have at least one opportunity to validate. In other words, if someone is talking to you, they’re probably hoping for validation. This again stems from our basic human need for appreciation and acceptance. It’s something we all feel an inner draw towards, regardless of how independent, confident, or self-sufficient we may be.

If you’re uncertain about whether you should validate, simply check to see if the other person is sharing something. It could be an experience, an emotion, a concern, etc. If someone is sharing something with you (e.g., “You’ll never believe what happened at work!” “I just don’t know what to do with Aaron.” “This upcoming exam is going to kill me!”), they are probably looking for validation. Even if they share an issue with you and ask for advice, they will still be hoping (consciously or unconsciously) for a little validation first.

The remaining 10-20 percent of your conversations will be factual in nature with little-to-no emotion involved. If the other person is asking for directions, assigning a project to you at work, or asking what you’d like for dinner, you’re probably in the clear. But if a person asks for directions, and then tells you he’s worried he’s going to get lost, he is once again looking for validation.

If someone is distraught, angry, or concerned, validating them is your best chance at getting them to be receptive to feedback. The great thing is, you can validate someone even if you disagree with them. Learning to do so will give you a valuable tool for navigating confrontations, negotiations, disagreements, and the like.

What To Do When You Need Validation

With your increased understanding of validation, you are now much more likely to recognize when you yourself are seeking it. In these situations, it’s often best to just ask for it directly. It’s obviously best to talk with someone who already knows how to validate, but if the person you talk to doesn't, you can still point them in the right direction. For example, you might say:

“Hey I’m feeling stressed right now and need some validation. Can I vent for a minute? I don’t want feedback or any suggestions for fixing it. I’d just like you to hear me out and help me not feel crazy.”

I had an opportunity to practice this just the other day when I started venting to a couple people in my family. They began to give advice and counsel and I found myself becoming irritated and defensive. I had literally just asked for their thoughts on the matter, then immediately went on the defensive against everything they were saying. It took me a few minutes to snap out of my own drama, but as I got curious about my defensiveness, I realized that I really just needed validation. I had already found a solution to the problem; I just wanted someone to appreciate the difficulty of the situation. I shared that with my family and they immediately stopped providing advice. Sure enough, with a little validation, I was able to let it go and felt significantly better.

Learn To Validate Yourself

In addition to seeking validation from others, it’s important to learn to validate yourself. We are often our own worst critics, judging ourselves in ways we never would another individual. Practicing self-compassion and learning to validate ourselves is a critical part of developing strong emotional health and happiness.

As with validating others, self-validation can be used for both positive and negative experiences. This means you’re allowed to feel pride and excitement when you do something well, and sadness or regret when things don’t turn out the way you had hoped. More often than not, we invalidate our emotions in an effort to avoid uncomfortable feelings such as fear, anger, or sadness. 

You will recognize by now that the “just get over it” or “don’t get too excited” type responses weigh on us just as much as they would anyone else, yet are often difficult to catch in our own internal dialogue. Instead of dismissing or judging your own emotions, practice validating yourself in the same way you would a close friend. For example, you might say to yourself:

“That’s some quality work right there! I nailed it.”

“You know what? It makes perfect sense that I’m frustrated. I put a lot of time and effort into cooking this meal with the expectation that my husband and I could enjoy a nice evening together.”

“I actually have a lot on my plate right now — it makes total sense that I’m overwhelmed. I think anybody in my situation would feel the same way. It’s probably worth taking a step back and slowing down.”

Ignoring, dismissing, or suppressing your emotions doesn’t get rid of them; it buries them. It tucks them away to fester and arise again at a later time. When you recognize and validate your emotions instead, you strip away the judgment — the “I’m bad,” “this is wrong,” or “I shouldn’t” responses — and allow your experiences to flow through you. It helps you quell the inner critic and live a more present and enjoyable life.

Shenk, Chad E., and Alan E. Fruzzetti. “The Impact of Validating and Invalidating Responses on Emotional Reactivity.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2011, pp. 163-183.

Excerpted with permission of the author from I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships (2017, Autumn Creek Press) by Michael S. Sorensen.

A marketer by day and personal-development junkie by night, Michael S. Sorensen never aspired to write a book. His passion for helping others, fueled by his entrepreneurial spirit, led him to pen and self-publish the best-selling book I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships. Sorensen now shares the message of validation through speaking engagements, podcasts, and online instruction. michaelssorensen.com

See also:
Words Have Weight
Five Core Practices For Meaningful Conversation