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Ode to Validation: The Actual Contents of The Milk of Human Kindness

Rachel Alexander May 31, 2016

The Path to Validation Is Through Our Ears

{6:48 minutes to read} Validation is the yeast of a marriage. Without it, whatever you are cooking falls flat. Without it, you may find yourself wandering in the [proverbial] desert for 40 years with nothing good to eat—on a God-imposed, low-carbohydrate diet.

Validation holds hands with respect, discussed in the last article, Validation—How We Speak Is How We Love. Validation requires a recognition, an attunement, and an interest in what the other needs. While it sounds rudimentary, it’s so integral to our attachments and how we feel about one another that it’s worthy of our attention.

Validation is what happens when a mother looks into her infant’s little cookie-dough face and coos, taking in what she sees and expressing her acknowledgment of its otherness and wonderment. Mirroring, another word for this responsive seeing, is so crucial to our early development that those who don’t get it from their caregivers can fail to form a stable sense of self and may spend their lives searching for reassurance that they are there, that they are seen.

But our need for validation is ongoing, regardless of vulnerabilities left over from early childhood and missteps of the best-intended parents. In this difficult, sometimes nihilist, sometimes eviscerating world, we need the ones who love us to really see and hear us, to hold us in their attention regularly so that we are reassured we are there and we matter.

There are a few tried and true ways to validate one another (as opposed to about a million ways to invalidate one another). They all have to do with listening.

At The Focusing Institute, the training has to do with listening and attuning in a very rich way. We speak of “one interaction,” meaning that the speaker and listener share the experience; the intention is to be fully present for the speaker without imposing a separate agenda or interpretation.

The training has been instructive on how to:

  • listen more closely and with greater care;

  • listen with the right brain and body sense;

  • tune to the other, as if matching pitch; and

  • monitor not only what’s observed in the other, but also what is observed in one’s self as the experience of the other.

This is called “listening to the underneath.”

This training has made me more aware of the hard work of truly listening, as well as the subtle and ingrained habits by which we inadvertently dismiss and invalidate others. One of those is the use of pathologizing or blaming language:

  1. Have you been diagnosed with / it sounds like [you have] bipolar disorder.

  2. You’re overreacting; it’s not a big deal.

These examples are rather obvious in that the speakers betray a sense of their superiority. Implied is that the speaker is equipped to judge and categorize the listener and that the listener is less equipped and thus not treated as an equal participant in the conversation.

More respectful, embracing ways to tread the same subject matter would be:

(The blue signifies what’s new. As in, a new way.)

  1. Ah, it sounds like you’ve been struggling with all of this for some time now. I’m wondering what that is like for you. (Acknowledging and inquiring into the other’s experience, without qualifying it or rushing to any conclusion about it; asking the person to share more.)

  2. Wow, I’m feeling surprised by your response to this. It sounds like this is very upsetting for you just now. I’d like to understand more about what’s going on for you, if you are willing to talk some more about it. (The speaker checks in with herself and shares her experience, then reflects what she observed the other party to be experiencing, and finally makes a statement that invites and makes space for the other to say more. This is a demonstration of respect both for what she encountered internally and for the other’s different experience.)

Another way we can invalidate one another is more subtle still. In an attempt to understand, we might use some kind of shorthand, generalizations, or categorization, which can feel quite dismissive to the person who is speaking:

  • That sounds like he is just a grumpy old so-and-so.

Rather than keeping things very specific to what the person is expressing as their unique experience, we want to define it and categorize it. In our effort to sum it all up or make sense of it, we can truncate the speaker’s need to fully express and find his way through what he is talking about.

Other ways we tend to invalidate one another are interrupting and/or talking about our own situation rather than listening.

  • Oh yeah, she sounds EXACTLY like my friend Sally, I know the type. Have I told you about her? Well, listen to this, she …

Instead, we might consider asking questions that make space for the other to share, keeping company with the other while they explore what’s on their mind:

  • Let me see if I understand this whole thing. Is it about …? Tell me more about that.

  • Is this how you’re feeling about it? Have I got that right?  

  • That sounds really important. What was that like for you, when he told you …?

How we talk to one another is how we love one another. More space, more listening, more love.