When someone you care about comes to you and says “I did this ridiculous thing today and I am feeling so embarrassed”, or when our child comes to you and says “no one wants to play with me at school”—what’s your first impulse??
If you’re like most of us, you would probably say something like “oh, but I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” or “honey, I can see you’re upset but I’m sure other kids want to play with you at school, there is probably a misunderstanding”. It makes sense why we rush to make it better because when we see people we love in pain, our empathy kicks and then we feel the pain too. Out of our own discomfort of seeing another suffer we are moved to quickly “fix it” and send the message “but I’m sure it’s not that bad”.
The thing is however, that often in our attempt to make the other feel better we actually disregard their emotional experience.
And what’s worse than a painful emotional experience?
Experiencing it alone and feeling like no one gets it.
From my observations as a relationship counsellor it’s often in the space of the other “not getting it” where conflict emerges. But there’s hope! I am going to give you one simple strategy you can start doing today to improve your relationships and decrease conflict.
By the use of validation you communicate that you really get it, and demonstrate how you get it.
The basic concept is to turn the “buts to because”.
Rather than saying “I see your sad but…”
“I can understand why you might feel (insert feeling- sad, mad, frustrated, embarrassed) because_______, because________, because________.”
They say that it takes three becauses for the validation to be really felt and heard. If you can’t come up with all three you can use “hard, heavy and/or tough”.
“I can understand why you’d feel embarrassed because I imagine it felt like everyone was watching and judging you, because you know you’re able to do better and because it didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped.”
“I can understand why you would be feeling sad because you feel left out when other kids don’t want to play with you, because you don’t want to be alone during recess and lunch, and because you want to have fun like the other kids at school.”
After the validation,DON’T STOP THERE!
After a deep validation we can then move into offering support.
For a partner it might be something like “I don’t know what to say right now, but I want you to know I’m here. Let me know if I can do anything to help”.
For the child at school example, “how about we come up with some ways that you can make friends so you aren’t alone at school”.
Validate, then support/fix.
The next time a loved one comes to you in emotional pain, I challenge you to try using this validation technique. You might be amazed at what happens.
Written by Kathy Kutzer, MSW, RSW, RCC