Validating refers to the process of acknowledging and accepting someone’s experiences as valid and understandable. Even if you may not necessarily agree or empathise with the person, recognising that their thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviours are their reality – and that these experiences are there for a reason – still counts as holding a validating stance.
At the moment, a close family member is struggling with their own emotional and mental difficulties. Ironically, the 12-year old I look after is going through something similar herself. My urge to sweep in and tell them both that I understand what they are going through is overwhelming, although inappropriate considering my role in their lives, their ages and their current level of vulnerability.
I know that the most effective and loving thing I can therefore do for them right now is to be present with them, listening and validating their experiences in an attentive and non-judgmental way.
In DBT residential we were taught about the Six Levels of Validation, a concept compiled by Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT. The ability to validate does not come naturally to everybody, however if it is effectively and willingly practiced, it will most likely become easier over time. Having these 6 levels spelled out can be a helpful way of understanding the different ways and depths to validate an individual’s experience –
Level 1 – Being Present:
This involves devoting 100% of your attention to the person you are trying to validate. Multi-tasking or half-listening does not count as giving someone your undivided attention. No phones or other electronics, no vacantly staring in an irrelevant direction, no ‘umm’ing and ‘ahh’ing when really you are not taking in information that is being shared with you. Being present requires being Mindful and aware of what is going on with the person in the present moment, and working hard to avoid being distracted by unrelated stimuli.
E.g. In listening to your partner’s account of their challenging day at work, make the effort to listen to and take in their full experience. Hold a curious stance, and show that you are interested and care about what they have to say. Provide them with evidence that they are more important than the buzzing of a mobile phone or an irrelevant errand on a to-do list. Let them know “You can talk to me, I am here for you, I am listening”.
Level 2 – Accurate Reflection:
This involves verbalising an experience you have heard someone express to you. It is important to reflect back to the person accurately in order to avoid them feeling unheard or misunderstood as a result. It is not necessary to make deeper inferences at this level of validation; merely ensure that you are summarising someone’s feelings, thoughts or sensations back to them in a non-judgmental and compassionate way.
E.g. If your child tells you “Mummy, today school sucked, Jessie didn’t want to be my partner and made me cry because I was all alone”, reflect their experience back to them in a concise, accurate (and non-parroting) way: “It sounds like today was hard for you sweetheart, and that you felt sad and lonely when Jessie didn’t pair up with you”. (And give your kid a hug, too!)
Level 3 – Guessing Unstated Feelings/ Mindreading:
This involves reading in between the lines to try and work out what is going on beneath the surface presentation someone may be portraying. Accurately guessing can feel especially validating and relieving for individuals who struggle to explicitly express their emotions to those around them. Even if you don’t get it completely right, the fact that you care enough to get curious about the other person’s emotional world may feel heart-warming in itself.
E.g. You see your colleague looking withdrawn and tearful when they return to the office after a phone call. When you ask them how they are, they tell you they are ‘fine’, although their voice is cracking. Without acting overly intrusive, you give them a warm hug and say “You seem quite sad since you came back into the office – I was wondering if you had a difficult phone conversation, and if you would like to talk? I hope everything is okay.”
Level 4 – consider Past History and Individual Biology:
Sometimes the way we react to events in our everyday lives can be influenced by both experiences from our past as well as a biological predisposition. This may be the case especially in individuals suffering from PTSD. Current situations which may act as a reminder of past trauma may trigger a negative reaction. Understanding why someone may react in a certain way depending on previous experiences is a vital form of validating the valid, even if it may not be something you struggle with yourself.
E.g. If a friend had a traumatic experience involving a bus accident and developed a fear of travelling by public transport, you could validate their experience by saying “Given your past experiences and what you have been through, I completely understand that the prospect of travelling by bus must be absolutely terrifying for you”.
Level 5 – consider Present Events, and Normalise:
This involves validating someone’s experiences based on what is going on for them currently within their lives. It also includes an element of normalising – a process in which you reassure someone that what they are going through is understandable considering the circumstances. (However, be careful not to over-normalise, as this can end up actually being invalidating!)
E.g. It is the anniversary of your friend’s relative’s death. You meet them for coffee and they berate themselves for still feeling so torn up with sadness. You gently tell them “I know today is an important date for you, and it makes complete sense that you are experiencing such sadness. I want you to know that I am here for you; and that I know I would feel similarly if I were in your shoes”.
Level 6 – Radical Genuineness:
This refers to treating the person you are trying to validate as a real human being with valid feelings, as opposed to a mentally ill person unable to manage themselves or their experiences. Expressing radical genuineness involves seeing the other person as an equal to yourself, whilst simultaneously showing your support, and the belief that they are capable of getting through their current struggles. You are not superior to them, be careful not to condescend or belittle. Radical genuineness can also refer to understanding someone on a very deep level, perhaps as a result of personal lived experiences you yourself have had.
E.g. A therapist treating their client as an equal, including being genuine about their experiences of the client without making them feel overly fragile, incompetent of marginalised.
Remember: everyone deserves to feel heard, understood, and cared about, even when they are in pain.