Validation Fails

Validation is one of our most important interpersonal skills. The ability to validate effectively can significantly improve our relationships. And being able to validate someone in a given moment can make or break an interaction.

So what does it take to validate? In this two-part blog series, we’ll look at some common validation failures as well as some pointers for validating across a range of situations and relationships. In this piece, we’ll take a look at what often gets in the way of validating. Many of these interactional styles are common and might be well-intentioned, but the impact is that they end up invalidating the person on the other end. Bringing our attention to this interference, and making the appropriate adjustments, can have a quick, positive impact on our interpersonal functioning.

Judgment: Judgment can take many forms and might sound, for example, like, “Why are you feeling sad?” or “You shouldn’t be angry.” To determine if you’re being judgmental, ask yourself if you believe there’s a right or wrong way to feel in the situation. And if so, are you imposing that belief on the other person? Validating effectively means pulling away from “good” and “bad” and “right” and “wrong” and instead witnessing and honoring the other person’s experience, regardless of what it is or any preconceived notions you might have.

Personalization: It’s a common phenomenon that when someone shares something and we can identify with that experience, we want to jump in and share our own. But taking the attention away from the person who’s sharing can be invalidating. Sure, empathizing is important, and it is sometimes helpful for someone to understand that you actually do get it, that your experience aligns with theirs. So how do you balance this with staying focused on the person who’s sharing? Allow them to speak, without cutting them off. Give them your full attention. If there’s a space for it, mention that you’ve had a similar experience and ask them if it would be helpful to hear about it. If you do end up sharing, keep it brief, and then return your focus to the other person.

Toxic positivity: Toxic positivity refers to an excessive focus on positive thinking, feelings, and experiences. This focus can invalidate more difficult narratives and emotions. A listener who exhibits toxic positivity can discourage someone from sharing their true feelings or can cause them to feel bad about how they have experienced a situation. When listening to someone share, be open to their full range of emotions. Don’t try to sugar-coat, negate, or “fix'”more painful emotions. Even if the other person is pain, don’t try to rescue them from their emotions. Allow them to be with them. Sit alongside them. Be willing to accompany people in both pleasure and pain.

Advice giving: This might be the most common validation failure we see. Humans are natural problem solvers and, of course, want to make things better for others in our lives. So, when someone shares a difficulty, many of us jump in to problem solve or give advice. But most people, when experiencing difficulties, either don’t want advice or don’t want it at that moment. They simply want to be heard. To validate more effectively, hold off on problem solving and advice giving until you’re sure that you’ve sufficiently held space for the other person’s experience. If you’re just aching to share a tip, think through the pros and cons of doing so. If you believe the pros outweigh the cons, tread carefully. It might make sense to ask for consent before jumping in.

Pity: One surefire way to invalidate someone is to express pity for them. No one feels good as the object of another’s pity. People certainly don’t feel validated when you take a holier-than-thou approach, and they don’t generally like it when you feel sorry for them. So level the playing field here. We are all humans, trudging our way through emotions, relationships, and circumstances. Approach others with equality, respect, and genuineness when you go to lend an ear.

By taking a look at these validation fails, we can enhance our ability to validate others and therefore improve our interpersonal functioning. In the second blog in this two-part series, we’ll take a look at the levels of validation from DBT, collectively helpful toward someone feeling seen and heard in your presence. Stay tuned!

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