What does it mean to validate someone else? You validate another person when you make a sincere effort to understand his point of view, and let him know that you’re trying. You can do this by paraphrasing what he has said, or by reflecting back a feeling that you’re picking up from him.
Saying “I understand” comes more easily to us. But do we really understand? And how does it feel when someone says “I understand” to us? To me, it feels slightly dismissive. I want to say to the other person, “You think you understand, and maybe you do, but I don’t feel understood when you say that.”
Hearing “I understand” does not lessen my fear, nor my feeling of being at odds with the other person. When someone says, “I understand,” my impression is that she is trying to make me feel better but is not really interested in my perspective and my feelings. This is especially true if her words, “I understand,” are followed by her perspective on the same subject. Then it seems that she doesn’t understand at all and what she really wants is to convince me that she’s right.
I would much rather hear from him a deeper acknowledgement. I want him to say to me, “I can tell that this is important to you,” or “It sounds like you’re frustrated right now.” When I hear words like that, then I feel understood.
I also feel understood if someone says, “Tell me more about that,” or if he repeats back to me a condensed version of what I’ve been saying. It’s his intention that matters. Does he really care about what I have to say? And his intention rings clearly through his words.
You might think that if you validate another person in this way, then it will pump up her ego and make the situation more polarized. In my experience, the opposite is true. When I receive sincere validation, I relax. I don’t cling so tightly to my position, and I start to open to the other person. A natural next step for me is to ask her about her perspective.
When we are in a conflict, it can be very difficult to validate in this way. In the heat of the moment, we forget our better intentions. It helps if we practice when we’re not under pressure, in ordinary conversations. Then, when we’re in a challenging situation, we’ll be more likely to remember the simple, potent, and generous practice of validation.
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