Monday, July 14, 2008

The Art of Validation

I think you know that a couples therapist generally directs the traffic.

I'll say, "Talk about this." Or "Yes, go there; talk to her about that."

So people will be talking and I'll be listening and thinking, wondering where it will all go, and inevitably I'll hear one of the partners reflexively shoot back those fighting words:

"Yes, but. . "

This is a call to pandemonium, although it can start out quietly. Yes, but. . . generally means the listening is over, the race to communicate has begun.

I'll have to interrupt and exclaim, "No, foul! Don't do this! No Yes, buts. These are dysfunctional. Yes buts. . . are dysfunctional."

Nobody wants that, to add to the dysfunction, so couples listen up to hear the following lecture.


Saying Yes, but. . . invalidates the other person. It's as if the listener hasn't heard the speaker, yet disagrees anyway. Validating, by contrast, is the process of saying, I hear you, this is what you said, . . .I get it.

After that, it's okay to disagree.

But by jumping to Yes, but one doesn't prove he or she has really heard anything. And people want to be heard.

And worse, there's absolutely nothing in the Yes of Yes, but, that says to the speaker that the listener is even interested in the speaker's thoughts.

The word yes all by itself is like, Uh, huh. It's a nod. If the nod is immediately followed a dismissive personal monologue, or worse, a defense, then rather than feeling validated, the speaker thinks the "listener" has been working up that defense while feigning listening.

To make a person feel heard, to validate someone, you need more than a Yes, but and your spin on the subject.

It would be different if all you're talking about is food. A person asks, "Would you like garlic bread?" and the other responds, Yes, but only one piece. This communicates a desire for garlic bread, one piece. Nice, clear communication. In this case, Yes is Yes, I want some garlic bread. Crisp.

But when someone's trying to communicate about something less tangible, perhaps a feeling or a problem, it's not going to fly if the listener lobs a Yes, but.. which sounds a lot like a So what.

It's as if the listener would like to say, My feelings are the ones that matter here. Listen to me if you don't mind, listen to me now that you've finally stopped talking. I thought you never would.


That now familiar phrase, It's not about you, comes directly from communication theory. Communication and family therapists have been saying this gently for over fifty years, It's not about you, dear, to couples in relationship therapies.

This whole area of communications theory, validating people's feelings and words, is really about seeing the meta-messages, the messages about messages. If I don't validate, then I don't give the message that I've really heard, I haven't taken in what you've said. And healthy relationships, believe it or not, really are about give and take.

The fun is really in the giving for mature adults. Both give, both get; parochial school fund raising without the glitter. But we're not talking about money, here, we're talking about intangibles like service, smiles, time, love.

When it comes to communication, when a person speaks, he's giving his thoughts. A partner listens, takes them in. If the listener doesn't take well, the giver is deprived of the giving, which is an insult, a returned gift. Unopened.

So taking well is the key role in communication, once your partner has found the courage to communicate something important to you. Once that happens, everything hinges on the taking. This is why therapists always push couples to validate what one another says, to communicate reception.

Validating what you hear is the thank you note of communication. It's an art, but an easy one. The art is in the expression, how you look at the other while talking; how you look when you talk. It's in the eyes, the mouth.

You don't have to agree at all with what someone is saying to do this, validate well.

Last week FD and I saw the new Indiana Jones movie. (WARNING, MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS) We shared our feelings about it. He said he liked it.
"You liked it?"

"Uh, huh. Did you?" He's curious.

"Too many bugs."

"I know. But I kind of liked them." He looked at me like, You forgive me for that, don't you, for kind of liking the bugs?

I pause, raise an eyebrow. "The snake didn't scare me," I say as a peace offering, a joining statement.

"That was a fine snake. Excellent use of the Harry Potter theme."

"It was. I felt it helped me get over the first Indiana Jones movie, not being afraid of the snake. And I really liked the ET theme."

"You liked that? I thought it a little too corny."
See? Not a single Yes, but. . .

But it doesn't really illustrate the art of validation very well. Recreational intimacy generally doesn't require all that much validation.

Validation is important, indeed crucial, when people are sharing their innermost thoughts about things that matter to them.

A person shares something meaningful, a fear or a sadness, perhaps. If the listener indicates, with either body language, words, or both, that he or she really appreciates what's been said, then there's an immediate sense of connectedness, closeness. Good vibes. It feels like applause, such respect for the other person.

Without this, people sometimes look for intimacy outside of their primary relationships. And it's not always a good thing. We want to be taken seriously. We want what we say to "take." And we like applause.

Validation is, Thanks for sharing; thanks for your opinion. You're saying. .

The words are repeated back, word for word if possible.

So what you're saying is. . .

I believe what you mean is . . .

And you throw in a healthy serving of empathy, the real gift. I can see why you'd say that. I see where you're coming from. You must feel . . .(horrible, happy, scared, etc.)

Your partner matters. You've said, "You're smart, thoughtful, deep."

Lecture's over.

Now. Repeat all that back to me.

copyright 2008, therapydoc


Isle Dance said...

Well done.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it with this post. My dad used to talk about "yes buts" being the main reason he could not get along with his mother-in-law. I believe him more than ever after reading this.

Anonymous said...

Such a good post. Saying yes-but plugs the ears.

Listening is a lost art in all walks of life. I wonder if that's because we all feel so unheard? I feel so sad when I watch adults interact with children. Active listening is a skill that anyone can learn. First step: turn your cell phone OFF. Moms on cellphones yakking away while their children trail along behind... to me that's an icon of emotional poverty

Syd said...

Words I don't use are "Yes but", "What if" and "I know". Those words mean I'm not listening and my ego is ruling.

Anonymous said...

It's all about me!

therapydoc said...

Christian, I laughed! Thanks.

Derrickzxc said...

it's funny how we don't notice at times... communication is everything I think... things can go either nice or nasty with that. LOL

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