Skill #3 – Validate: Think of this skill as communicating to the other person that you can imagine how their feelings could result from the situation or that you understand how they are seeing things.
Validation is often one of the most misunderstood or difficult skills for people to learn in the context of relationship communication. This is partly because it takes time and effort to understand another person’s perspective in order to be able to effectively validate. It is also difficult to avoid trying to ‘fix’ things or talk the other person out of feeling the way they are feeling, which becomes invalidating.
More than words
Validation is much more than saying, “I understand” or, “I get how you feel.” Those statements are easy to say. The hard part is to be able to express or verbalize to the other person a true understanding of how they feel so that when they hear you say it, they go, “Yes, you got it!”
We might understand part of what the other person is saying or listen until their words make sense to us, and that often isn’t enough to be able to successfully offer validation to them. To offer validation and allow the other person to feel heard, we need to understand what their perspective is, why they see things that way, and often, how they feel about the situation. We also need to slow down enough to stick with their perspective so that we can effectively communicate their perspective and feelings back to them.
Using skills together
As discussed in the previous parts of this blog series, using the skills of reflection and being curious will help you get to a place where you really understand the other person’s perspective, why they see things that way, what they might feel about the situation, and why they feel that way. Then comes validation, when you explain your understanding of their perspective.
Think back to the last blog entry where I suggested you invite your partner to answer the question, “What is the worst food?” If someone were to validate my perspective on what I think the worst food is, it might sound something like this:
“Okay, it sounds like you think lima beans are the worst food, regardless of how they are cooked. They taste bland to you and the texture in your mouth is not enjoyable. In addition, you have clear memories of being forced to eat lima beans as a child and can remember having to sit at the kitchen table until all the vegetables on your plate, including the lima beans, were eaten. This brings back feelings of powerlessness and disgust. I can understand how you would think lima beans are the worst food.”
In the example above, you might be able to read the what (lima beans), the why (taste, texture, negative memories and experiences), and the feelings (powerlessness and disgust) that are associated with the situation. If someone were to say the above to me, I would feel heard and validated and recognize that the other person now understands me a little better than they did before.
Learn to be a better partner to your partner
As a marriage therapist, I believe that learning to be a better partner for your partner is one of the overarching goals of a relationship. So, understanding the other person's perspectives, feelings, and helping them feel heard, validated, and understood is an important building block of a stronger relationship. Of course, the "worst food" example is about a situation that probably isn’t terribly intense (unless someone kept trying to feed me lima beans), so the process might be a bit easier than if were discussing something more impactful like faithfulness or honesty in the relationship.
The wedding band saga - continued
So, let’s return to the example I outlined in the first blog in this series. Remember, the situation with the “updated” wedding band? Hopefully, in reading the rest of the story, you will be able to identify all three steps to more effective listening.
And now, the rest of the story…
We left off with my wife having told me that she felt sad and me thinking, “wtf…what was all the talk about the upgrade to your ring?”
Now, I may not be the smartest person in the world, but I’m smart enough to know that letting that thought come out of my mouth would not be helpful. Instead, I decided to reflect back to her what I had heard. I said, “Okay, I hear you are feeling sad.” She nodded.
Being curious, I asked, “Are you sad because you don’t like the new ring?”
“No,” she replied.
“Are you sad because the old ring was exactly what you wanted?”
“No,” she replied.
After being curious about how she was feeling and asking questions for a bit, I finally understood her perspective. I said, “I see. You’re sad because I gave you that wedding ring on our wedding day, it’s very meaningful to you and you’ve worn it every day since, and now it’s just gone, and you didn’t even know it was going away.”
Her face softened and she said, “Yeah.”
Then, having felt heard and validated, she turned the discussion around and ended up validated me when she said, "I’m not usually sentimental about stuff like this; I didn’t know I would feel this way, so I don’t know how you could have.”
Luckily, because we were able to listen to understand and use effective listening skills, that put me in the mindset to call the jeweler first thing in the morning and leave a message saying, “…if you haven’t melted down that ring yet, I’d like to buy it back from you.”
I received a call later in the day indicating that they were planning to send out the ring today to be melted, but that they did still have it and I could come and buy it back from them.
Hopefully you can see the three listening skills demonstrated in this story.
If you struggled to recognize the skill demonstrated in the story, reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’d be happy to explain.
Likewise, if you’d like to get some support from a couples therapist as you get started, please visit www.inctherapy.org and schedule a free telephone consultation to get started.
Using skills together (part 2)
In the meantime, I encourage you to reread the 4 blog posts in this series and then practice, practice, practice. Invite your partner to practice with you and give you feedback about your approach. Give your partner a chance to practice the skills. Use opportunities that are not terribly intense so that when the more difficult situations or feelings come up in your relationship, you are better prepared to listen in a way that leaves the other person feeling heard.
Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He is licensed as a psychologist in Colorado and Florida. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida. If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call with Dr. Mike at Individual and Couples Therapy, please click here., then click Schedule, and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at email@example.com. Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.