Your child rolls his eyes at you.
Your partner complains about her work for the 400th time and doesn’t take any of your advice.
What is your feeling in each of these situations? Anger, irritation, or annoyance is quite likely.
The First Reaction: Defensiveness
It can be easy to get defensive in these situations – you probably feel disrespected and angry that your child rolled his eyes when you asked him to set the table because you work so hard to provide for that child, you do so much work around the house, and your child doesn’t seem to appreciate your hard work.
You may feel a simmering rage that your partner isn’t taking any of your advice after talking about her frustrations over and over and over. You may want to shout, “Just make a decision!” Or “Stop Complaining!”
The Shift To Validation
Validation is about looking at these situations with a different lens. The lens I’ve described so far is the one where we look at the situation personally and make it about ourselves. “My child is disrespecting ME” or “My partner doesn’t value MY opinion”.
Validation is a choice to shift the lens from ourselves to the other person. Acknowledge your reaction and then take a breath and ask yourself, “What is this person feeling underneath the eye roll or complaining?”
Your son could be feeling angry and annoyed to have to shift from doing something fun to something so incredibly boring such as setting the table. That’s normal behavior for a kid. You are the adult and get to make many decisions for your children. They are the child and must do things you ask them to even if they don’t want to do it. That can be annoying.
Your partner could be really frustrated with work and may just want someone to say, “That sounds really tough, I can imagine how frustrated you are that you are being asked to work more hours/being treated so poorly/working hard and getting zero credit/fill-in-the-blank”.
The goal of validation is to help a person deepen into their emotions about a situation and feel heard. Once these things happen, there can be space for problem solving IF needed.
Believe me, I love to give advice to my family – I don’t want to see them in pain or struggling! I can see possible solutions that maybe they can’t. Yet, if I stop and validate instead, I often don’t have to give any unwanted advice – they can see it for themselves. We often think people are asking for advice, but really, they just want to be heard.
Often, we are uncomfortable with someone else’s emotions and attempt to change their emotion, so that we can feel better.
Validation is about connection with the heart instead of the mind. I see you. I hear you. We slow down and be more present with that person instead of seeing that the act of dealing with their emotions is another “to do” on our never-ending list. If we stop and take 2 minutes to really be there it can make a world of difference.
When Do I Get To Give My Advice?
After the other person appears to deepen into their emotion or relaxes after feeling heard, then we can ask them if they want our advice or want help solving the problem.
With the child who rolls his eyes, there may be zero advice-giving – sometimes just acknowledging that it’s frustrating can be enough. If there’s more going on in the situation (e.g. swearing at you every time you ask) you can set a boundary AFTER validating them. “You have the right to be annoyed for being asked to do something you don’t like, but it’s not okay to swear me at me”.
With the partner who’s complaining about work all the time, after validating the person you can ask if they want your advice. If you’re too tired to hear about your partner’s work woes, try saying, “I really want to give you my full attention right now, but I just can’t because I’m so exhausted. I’m a crappy listener when I’m exhausted. Can you tell me more when the kids are watching tv after dinner?” And then remember to ask them about their day when the kids are watching tv.
Want to see it in action?
This is an enjoyable video to watch. Even if you just watch the first 3 minutes of this video, you will get a feel for what validation can be. The actor TJ Thyne conveys deep connection as he validates others. His words are not as deep (he doesn’t really know the people he’s validating), yet his connection is strong. The rest of the video is more of a short story – interesting but more Hollywood than reality. You don’t need to have this depth of connection to do validation, it’s more important to be authentically you in your connection with your child.
If you have a list in your head of situations or words that are challenging to validate, then consider watching the video by a fellow Social Worker, Natasha Files from Mental Health Foundations. She takes 90 minutes to break it down in the one of the best explanations I have seen. She teaches viewers how to validate phrases like, ‘I’m fat”, or “I give up”, or “It’s too hard”. If you feel stuck and confused about validating, this is a great investment of your time that will help you deepen your connection with family members and save hours of time in frustration with them.
Validation Cheat Sheet (adapted from Emotion-Focused Family Therapy)
- Take a breath, acknowledge & notice your urge to be defensive – now shift your lens to them instead of you
- Attend to the emotion – be present with the person and notice what could be going on
- Label the emotion the other person is feeling (take a guess! It’s okay to be wrong)
- You’re mad at me or
- You’re frustrated with everything going on at work
- Validate the emotion
- I can understand why you would feel angry, because you’re being asked to do something you don’t want to do, and that it can be annoying that adults tell you what to do at home and at school all the time
- I can see why you would be frustrated at work because you’re being undervalued, your boss keeps treating you with disrespect, and you’re giving your 100%.
- Meet the emotional need
- Give your son space to feel what he needs to feel – let him be annoyed while he sets the table. You can tell him that he still needs to set table (if he isn’t doing it) and you could let him know that you appreciate the help
- Let your spouse know that you’re there for them
- Fix/Problem-Solve – ask if they want help solving their problem
Like talking about issues of morality with others, emotions are very similar. We cannot use reason to shift someone’s moral views just as we cannot use reason to shift someone’s emotions. (See my blog post Controversial Conversations With Family & Friends to learn more). Connection is the most powerful tool and validation is great way to connect.
Want to learn more about supporting a child or adult with anxiety? Stay tuned for a post in February.