As discussed in our prior blog, validation is a significant component to interpersonal functioning. Learning how to validate others is one thing we can do to improve our relationships across the board. Here, we’ll take a look at how to master this skill.
Before we begin, it’s important to know what validation is. . . and isn’t. When we validate someone, we’re sharing that we understand their experience. It doesn’t necessarily mean we agree or feel the same, but it means we can understand how they came to feel this way. We might validate someone’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, but we only want to focus on validating what’s valid, not the invalid. For example, if you’re rushing to get to work and cut me off in traffic, causing a near collision, I can validate that you’re stressed to get to work, but I’m not going to validate this dangerous course of action. We often talk about validating the “kernel of truth” in someone’s experience, even if there are parts that don’t resonate or that we can’t really get behind.
We can validate with our words or our actions. Sometimes, the most validating thing we can do is respond to someone’s discomfort with an action to make things better. For instance, if you’re playing a song on your phone that I tell you is upsetting to me, you saying to me, “I can see why this upsets you,” without just skipping to the next song isn’t really going to feel validating for me. Often, we need actions more than words to feel seen and understood.
In DBT, we talk about “levels of validation,” different components of the validation process that come together to communicate that we really understand someone’s experience. Let’s take a look at these levels together.
Level 1: The first level involves paying attention to the other person. People aren’t going to feel heard if we’re literally not hearing them. So when someone is sharing with you, minimize distractions. Put down your phone (we know it’s hard!) and give them your full attention.
Level 2: Reflect back what you’re hearing. This communicates that we are, in fact, listening to and tracking what the other person is sharing. We don’t want to repeat what the other person is saying word for word, though. This can be experienced as mimicking or actually invalidating. So listen to what they’re saying and summarize, checking to make sure you’re getting it right.
Level 3: In this step, we go beyond reflecting what we’ve heard and do what we call “read minds.” See if you can read between the lines. What is apparent to you that the other person isn’t saying? If you can comment on this, they might feel especially seen. So, if your partner gets home from work after an usually long day, you might say, “You must be exhausted.” They haven’t said it, but you’re reading between the lines. Be willing to be wrong here, though. Perhaps their day, though longer than usual, actually energized them. If they correct you, go with this correction.
Level 4: Demonstrate an understanding of the other person’s experience. Acknowledge that how they’re feeling makes sense given who they are and their unique history. So, here you might say, “It makes sense that you’re frustrated with how your sister responded to you, given what happened last year with her.” You’re letting the person know that how they feel makes sense in the context of their lives.
Level 5: Validate the other person more globally. This is the heart of validation. Here, you’ll communicate that their experience makes sense, regardless of who they are and what has happened to them, that anyone would feel this way. “What your sister did was really frustrating,” you might say. So you name the experience without contextualizing things, communicating that their experience tracks overall.
Level 6: We see this as more of an over-arching stance than a specific step. Be real and respectful when communicating your validation. In DBT, we call it “radical genuineness.” We might say the most validating things in the world, but if the person on the other end perceives us as pitying them or looking down on them, it’s not going to feel good. So be yourself. Show respect. Approach the other person as an equal.
While the levels tend to build on one another, you don’t have to use all six levels all the time. For instance, you might skip Level 4 and go directly to Level 5. In practice, you’ll likely find yourself jumping around a bit. However, Level 6 is a particularly important one to keep in mind throughout.
Learning how to validate is an important practice that can improve our interactions and relationships. While our prior post focused on what not to do, this one walks you through what to do. You can keep both pieces in mind as you hone your validation skills.