Let me begin by clarifying what I mean by "validation." In psychology, validation means to acknowledge that another person's feelings, reactions, and thoughts are understandable. It is the practice of finding the "kernel of truth" in another person's perspective. Validation does not mean that you like or even agree with the other person's perspective, simply that you understand how they arrived at it and where they are coming from.
The effects of validation on relationships have been well-researched. Helping clients develop skills for effective validation is a significant component of various evidence-based therapies including Gottman Method Couples Therapy, Parent Management Training, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Anecdotally, I would say that learning how to validate others has transformed many of my personal relationships. The clients I've been able to help master this skill-set often have the same experience. I'm telling you, this really is the black art of interpersonal effectiveness! Although validation is ostensibly about communicating understanding, it is also an invaluable tool for getting your own needs met in the context of a relationship.
Most of the time, when we express concerns or emotions to others we want to feel that they understand our perspective; and yet, most of the time what we receive is problem solving. This makes perfect sense - when you communicate a problem, people want to quickly resolve it. They want you to feel better. You probably do the same thing: when your kids are upset, you want to help them change the situation that is making them upset. The issue is that when we jump into problem solving before having communicated that we understand the problem, our attempts to problem solve often fail - the other person does not feel heard or understood and is thus not likely to take our advice or feedback.
Consider this example: if my car breaks down and my neighbor, who has never driven a car in her life, comes out and says she thinks I need a new engine, I'm not likely to take her advice. If my other neighbor, who owns an auto repair shop, comes out and says I need a new engine, I'm inclined to listen to her. Because I believe she understands the problem, I'm more likely to take her advice on how to resolve it.
So how does one become a master of validation? At the most basic level, validation can be communicated by just looking and nodding along to what someone is telling you. This might seem like obvious stuff, but with smartphones and tablets at our fingertips, I find that folks tend to underestimate how often their devices interrupt their conversations, or undermine their validation attempts.
Other levels of validation include:
Validating based on their past experience: Communicating to someone that their experience or reaction makes sense given their unique history (e.g. "it makes sense that you had a panic attack when you heard your son got into a fender bender given that your mom died in a car accident last year").
Validating based on your own experience: Communicating to someone that you understand based on the fact that you have experienced a similar situation (e.g. "I once got a phone call that my child had been in a minor accident and I didn't sleep for a week!").
Radical genuineness: Communicating to someone that you understand their emotions by allowing yourself to radically experience the emotion with them (e.g. allowing yourself to tear up when someone relays a devastating experience).
There are of course other levels of validation, but this should provide a sense of what we're going for. As a rule of thumb, if you don't get the sense that someone feels understood by you, take a different approach and cycle thru levels of validation until you find one that works.
None of this is to say that validation is a replacement for problem solving. On the contrary, it is often a necessary first step. It might be important, for example, to ultimately help your children troubleshoot problems at school, or to give your partner feedback about how their negativity affects you. The point is that in order to foster change, you usually need to first communicate understanding and acceptance of the problem. The more effective you are at doing this, the better positioned you are to actually enable the changes you seek.
Validation is like fertilizing your garden - it nourishes relationships, cements intimacy, and enables growth. I have yet to meet someone who did not respond positively to truly feeling known, understood, and accepted. So if you are hoping to change the quality, direction, or dynamic of a relationship, consider incorporating the art of validation.
For a tongue-in-cheek perspective on all of this, check out what is currently my favorite YouTube clip!