THE BLOG
01/28/2015 11:23 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

Validation: Beyond Empathy

Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

I have a tendency to talk incessantly about empathy.  And if you're my devoted readers, you know that empathy means conveying that you really understand another person's point of view, completely.  You don't have to share the same perspective, but you 100 percent genuinely understand what they mean.  So here's empathy:

Your husband: I hate doing dishes.

You: Well I'm not having a goddamn love affair with them either, but sometimes you just have to be a grown up.

Oh wait, that's not empathy at all, that's called ruining your marriage.  Let's try again.

Your husband: I hate doing dishes.

You: Yeah, I know, I hear that.  I feel that way about sex.

Oops, I keep messing up today.  But if you take off the last sentence, you have empathy.  Here's an example with kids:

Your 3-year-old:  You are mean!  You took my cookie!

You: You still weren't done with your cookie and I threw out the last bit.  You are mad at me.  I'm sorry.  (The I'm sorry isn't part of empathy, but it's a natural outgrowth if you really empathize.)

So, what's the difference between empathy and validation?  Empathy is acknowledging and understanding the emotion.  Here are three points to remember:
  • Think: what feeling are they experiencing?
  • Think: when did I feel something similar?
  • Say: I understand how you're feeling, and I feel ____ that you feel ____.
Validating is saying that it makes sense to you that the person feels that way.  So now you not only understand the emotion, but the emotion makes sense to you.  So you add in:
  • Think: can I see how it makes sense that they feel this way?
  • Say: It makes sense that you feel this way.
  • For bonus points: come up with reasons why it makes sense.
Now, you are NOT saying you'd react the same way.  You're NOT saying this is a "logical" way to act (although it's illogical to think about whether an emotion is logical; an emotion just is there).  Incidentally, you're also not explaining why you did whatever you did to make the person upset with you, if they are upset with you.  There is a time and place for explanations, but if they precede empathy and validation, they are going to be considered "excuses" and you will be despised for them.

So, let's add validation to empathy and make you into a relationship ninja.

Your 3-year-old:  Waaaah!  You hurt me with the comb!

You: You are upset that I hurt you with the comb.  It makes sense that you're upset.  That must have hurt.  I hate when my hair gets pulled too hard, too.

And here's you and your husband, but we'll kick it up a notch, to show how powerful empathy and validation are when used together.

You: How could you forget our anniversary?  Does this marriage mean anything to you?

Husband:  You're really mad at me about forgetting the anniversary.  I get that.  It makes total sense to me.  You've been telling me for years that special occasions are important to you, and I forgot another one.  This is like the birthday fiasco last month.  You must be so upset, and I completely understand why.  I am so sorry.  The marriage does mean a lot to me, but I can understand why you would think it doesn't, since I keep forgetting things that are important to you.

Now, most people are used to protecting and defending themselves when they feel attacked, so the idea of the husband voluntarily bringing up the birthday fiasco last month seems stupid.  But think about it: if you give someone else all the examples of how you truly understand their perspective, even if the examples include information that makes you look less than your best, isn't this a wonderful way to truly show that you're more committed to the relationship than to saving face and counterattacking?

Anyway, go forth and empathize, validate, and truly connect in a loving and attuned way.  You're welcome.  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Loves Empathy, and That Makes Sense.

For more, visit Dr. Psych Mom, or visit Dr. Rodman on Facebook or Twitter @DrPsychMom.