We all want to feel understood and valued. When we sense that others understand our perspective, we feel safer in relationships and more confident in general. Paradoxically, although we inherently crave understanding, we don’t intuitively know how to attain it.
Indulge me as a bibliophile for a moment: this universal desire to understand those we love, and to feel understood by them, is a prominent literary theme. All levels of readers relate to this internal drive; we can even learn about it in children’s books, such as “Duck! Rabbit!” (shown above). It’s also the topic of one of my favorite books, Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” As Maclean says, near the end of his story: “It is those we live with and love and should know that elude us.”
Learning to communicate about our desire to both understand and feel understood is an important piece of therapy. This communication skill is called validation. Validation lets the person we are talking with know that we have listened, that we care, and that we are invested in the relationship. It is NOT necessarily agreeing with them. The easiest way to describe validation is using the acronym CLEAR.
C – Communicate what you understand
L – Legitimize the “facts” of the other person’s statement
E – Explain your own feelings after expressing understanding
A – Acknowledge the other person’s opinions and feelings
R – Respect emotions, desires, reactions, and goals
Paying attention not only to our words, but also the meta-messages of body language is essential to validation. For example, let’s say you interrupt your teenager, who is watching Netflix, and ask them to put their laundry away. Their verbal answer is: “Sure! Fine! Great time for me to do that!” They roll their eyes and slump their shoulders at the same time. The words may sound validating but the message isn’t validating because of the behavioral cues accompanying them.
It takes a lot of time and patience to learn and then incorporate validation skills into our communication patterns, but the payoff is huge! The friends in “Duck! Rabbit!” remain so, even though they disagree about what they’re seeing in the clouds: ”You know, maybe you were right. Maybe it was a rabbit! Thing is, now I’m actually thinking it was a duck.” Relationships are strengthened when we invest time and effort in validation.