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Creating Closeness in Disagreement: The Power of Validation

Recently, I came across an interesting question on Quora: “How do you build trust?” One of the most popular answers was from a salesman, who argued that a salesman’s only job is to build trust. While he provided several techniques, the one he emphasized (and stood out to me) was to offer the other person validation.

When I think of building trust, I don’t usually first think of validation. I think about making and keeping agreements as well as negotiating back up plans when expectations can’t be met (but that's for another blog!). But the Quora writer is also definitely correct: validating does help create trust along with a host of other positive benefits.

In the past, I’ve written about why creating goodwill is important in a relationship (along with some tips on how to do that) as well as the benefits of empathy, and validation is a practice that contributes to goodwill and offers us another lens through which to practice empathy, to see the world from the other person’s point of view. In this post, I will discuss validation, how it can help your relationships (even beyond building trust), as well as some tips to help you validate your partner.

Often when I work with couples, they have reached a point in their relationship where they have become distant or disconnected, or they might even experience each other as enemies. Often, when this couple tries to communicate with one another, they end up arguing, trying to convince the other to see things their way. When I ask them to check in and see how they feel towards their partner, they tend to either want to continue fighting, or they want to simply be done with the situation in one way or another, which causes them to grow distant.

While disruptive to the relationship, this dynamic points us to what really needs to happen: what if instead of needing to be right, we recognized that this drive is truly just needing to be acknowledged? In other words, when we try to be right, our true desire might be met better with validation. Adapting Alan Fruzzetti’s straightforward definition, when we are validated, we feel that the other person understands our experience and accepts it. How good would it feel when there is a disagreement to felt understood and accepted by our partner?

Note that understanding and accepting are not the same as agreeing. For example, my wife, Kelsey, might say to me, “I felt really hurt when you snapped at me last night before bed.” I might be taken aback: I don’t remember snapping at her at all! I remember feeling that she was ignoring me before we turned out our lights, but I don’t remember what could have led to that at all. So, I may not agree with the premise that I snapped at her. If I choose the path of needing to be right, our conversation might go like this:

Kelsey: “I felt really hurt when you snapped at me last night before bed.”

Me: “What are you talking about? I didn’t snap. You were the one who ignored me.”

Kelsey: “That was only because you snapped at me about not putting away the toothpaste!”

Me: “I didn’t snap! And you know it makes me crazy when you don’t put things away…”

Kelsey: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Just forget it!”

Needless to say, this interaction will do nothing to help us feel closer in our relationship. However, if I decide to validate (not agree!), then the conversation may go quite differently:

Kelsey: “I was really hurt when you snapped at me last night before bed!”

Me: “I noticed that you seemed distant as we were turning out our lights. I’m sorry you felt hurt. Honestly, I felt sad going to bed feeling distant from you.”

Kelsey: “Me too. It just really upsets me when you snap at me for silly things.”

Me: “I can understand why being snapped at would upset you. However, to be honest, I’m not remembering snapping at you. Can you tell me what you experienced?”

Kelsey: “I didn’t put away the toothpaste right away, and you huffed and made a comment about always having to pick up after me.”

Me: “I can see why that would bother you. I guess I was just frustrated, too. Maybe we can find another way to handle those situations?”

Notice how different this exchange feels! Of course, there is still disagreement, which may feel uncomfortable, but my guess is that it feels much better than the prior interaction. Rather than need to be right, my wife and I are able to recognize what’s true in each other’s experience. By showing understanding and acceptance of one another, we are able to feel close to one another, and much more likely to find a positive outcome.

What does validation do?

As seen in the example above, validating can lead to better outcomes. But why? Here are some of the benefits of offering validation:

  • It demonstrates that you are not interested in arguing. Providing validation automatically establishes that you are not trying to ‘win’ or be right. It shows that you’re willing to see things from the other person’s perspective (even if you don’t agree).

  • It establishes common ground. By agreeing to the things that aren’t arguable, such as the fact that my wife felt hurt, we are able to stand on common understanding so that we are less likely to be defensive and adversarial when discussing the points we don’t agree upon.

  • It soothes emotional hurt. When a small child is crying, how much good does it do to try to convince him that a small scrape isn’t so bad? I’ve never seen a child suddenly stop crying and say, “You know, you’re right. There are far worse things that could happen.” However, when you say things like, “Oh! That must have hurt. It never feels good to get a scrape. I’m here with you, and you’re going to be okay,” you may find that the child begins to calm down. When you validate your partner, you are acknowledging their experience (scrapes hurt!) and let’s them know that you’re still on their team (I’m here with you).

  • It builds trust and a feeling of closeness. Think again about the child with the scrape. How would that child feel towards that adult who acknowledges his pain and says, "I am here for you!" Of course, the child will begin to trust the adult and feel drawn towards her. The same is true for our partners when we validate them!

  • It lays the groundwork for negotiating agreements you both can live with. When we have trust and closeness (and all kinds of goodwill!), we are more able to negotiate agreements that work for everyone. We can let go of needing to be right, and we don’t fight so hard to have only our own needs met. We can see the bigger picture and recognize that there is likely a solution that will work for both partners.

Tips for validation

Despite the clear benefits of validating, we might still struggle to validate our partners when we have a disagreement. Here are a few things to remember that can help:

  • Experiences are subjective. Even if you don’t think an event happened quite the way your partner describes it, what matters is that they experienced it that way. You likely won’t convince them that they experienced it wrong, so look for something you can validate about what your partner is saying. Find common ground.

  • Emotions matter. Like experiences, emotions are subjective. People will have different emotional reactions to similar situations. That doesn’t make emotions less important or wrong. Any emotion we have can be important! And, any emotion we have is also valid, for us in that given situation. Therefore, when your partner shares their emotions, take them at their word and offer validation – even if it’s not the same emotion you think you would have in that situation.

  • Be curious. If you have trouble accepting your partner’s version of events or their emotional response to it, ask questions. Make sure that your questions come from a place of curiosity and are not accusatory. Perhaps something in your partner’s past may be influencing their experience of this new event. Or perhaps they noticed details in the event that you did not. The more information you are able to hear about your partner’s experience, the more you will understand and accept it.

  • You can validate desires and opinions even if you can’t meet the request or agree with the belief. Desires and opinions are similar to emotions: everyone is entitled to theirs. Even if you can’t meet a request, acknowledge the desire. Even if you don’t agree with an opinion, acknowledge how your partner has come to that belief.

Relationship dynamics can be complex. However, small changes, like learning to offer validating statements, can make a profound difference in how you and your partner feel towards one another. Even though a change like this might seem small, it can still be very difficult. If you and your partner are having trouble navigating disagreements without alienating and upsetting one another, and you’d like help creating more goodwill, empathy, validation, and positivity in your relationship, contact me.

This blog was inspired by and borrows concepts from Alan E Fruzzetti’s book, The High Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation.

First image courtesy of Alex.

Toothpaste image courtesy of Kristopher Avila.

Couple image courtesy of Georgie Pauwels.

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