Who are your heroes? I have a few heroes in my life and because I am a psychologist unsurprisingly some of them are from my profession. People like Steve Biddulph who changed the way the western world raised boys, Martin Seligman who initiated the study of positive psychology and Jean Piaget, who’s work had a profound influence on psychology, especially our understanding children’s intellectual development.
But right up there on my list of psychological super heroes is Marsha M. Linehan an American psychologist and author. She is the creator of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), a type of psychotherapy that combines behavioural science with Zen concepts like acceptance and mindfulness.
She teaches that one of the four options couples have in any problem situation is acceptance. Validation is a useful way that we can communicate acceptance of ourselves and others. Validation doesn’t mean approving or liking. When my partner makes a decision that I really don’t think is prudent, validation is a good way of supporting her and strengthening our relationship while holding a different opinion. Validation is a way of communicating that our relationship is important to me even when we disagree on something.
By responding with validation I can recognize and accept her thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviours without putting her down, using sarcasm or dismissing what she has to say. Knowing that she is understood and that her emotions and thoughts are accepted by me is powerful. Validation is like relationship super glue.
My psychological super hero Marsha Linehan defined six levels of validation
The first Level is Being Present. There are so many ways to be present. Holding my partner’s hand when she is having a painful medical treatment, listening with your whole mind and doing nothing but listening to a child (for at least 8 minutes) describe their first day at school or going to a mate’s house at midnight to sit with him while he cries because his Mum just died are all examples of being present. So turn off the TV, step away from the computer, or stop washing the dishes, and lean forward and show you are paying attention and carefully listening. Hear the facts, nod your head, ask questions – take it all in before starting to form an opinion or evaluate (judge).
The second level of validation is Accurate Reflection. Accurate reflection means shutting up and listening to my partner and then summarizing what I have heard from her. Communicate back that I’ve heard the other person accurately, and without bias. This can be done by repeating what she said, though it can be better to paraphrase so you don’t sound like a parrot. Proves that you are listening to what the other person is saying. When done in a genuine way, (“so what you are saying is you are feeling pretty angry and hurt…) with the intent of truly understanding the experience and not judging it, accurate reflection is validating. Sometimes this type of validation helps someone sort through their thoughts and separate thoughts from emotions.
Level Three is Mindreading. Mindreading is guessing what another person might be feeling or thinking. Create a hypothesis about what I believe she is trying to say but maybe “not” expressing well. I can narrow this down by asking a question – guessing and asking if what ever it is accurate. When my partner is describing a situation, I try to notice her emotional state. Then either name the emotions I am hearing or guess at what she might be feeling.”I’m guessing you must have felt pretty hurt by that ” is Level Three validation. Remember that I may guess wrong and she can correct me. It’s her emotion and she is the only one who knows how she feels. Accepting her correction is validating.
Level Four is Understanding the Person’s Behaviour in Terms of their History and Biology. We are an blend of what has happened in our lives. On some level, based on our history, our actions make sense. If we lived in Darwin through a cyclone, for example, we would have a higher response to the warning sirens than others. Letting the other person know that their behaviour makes sense based on their past experiences shows understanding. My partner’s experiences and biology influence her emotional reactions. If she was bitten by a dog a few years ago, she is not likely to enjoy playing with my neighbour’s Rottweiler. Validation at this level would be saying, “Given what happened to you, I completely understand your not wanting to be around that dog.”
Level Five is normalizing or recognizing emotional reactions that anyone would have. Imagine my partner has to give a speech to a large crowd of people and she is nervous. Understanding that her emotions are normal, is helpful for everyone. We avoid shaming or giving the message of being defective. This is powerful. For the emotionally sensitive person, knowing that anyone would be upset in a specific situation is validating. So saying to her “Of course you’re anxious. Speaking before an audience the first time is scary for anyone.” Is validating.
Level Six is Radical Genuineness. Radical genuineness is when you understand the emotion someone is feeling on a very deep level. To be radically genuine is to ensure that we are not remedial and we don’t marginalize, condescend, or talk down to the person you are trying to validate. And we don’t want to treat them as fragile or any differently than you would treat anyone else in a similar situation. Maybe you have had a similar experience. Radical genuineness is sharing that experience as equals.
Understanding the levels may be easy. Putting them into practice is often more difficult. The Family Peace Foundation believes that practice is the key to making validation a natural part of the way peaceful families communicate.