Validation: Your New Relationship Superpower
Recently, we wrote a blog, “‘I’m Speaking,’ Explained,” that described an experience I had that changed the way I thought about how I interacted with others. I listened to a 30-minute recording of a meeting with a client that Katrina (my wife and Turnkey’s CEO) and I had been on the day before. Much to my surprise, I heard myself talking over Katrina on several occasions, and generally “taking up space” with my speech. Others on the call seemingly took no issue with this.
And surely this had happened many times before. Listening to myself unconsciously asserting my “male privilege” made me determined to change this habit.
People who talk more listen less. I realized I’m probably not the great listener I thought I was, so I went looking for research on becoming a better listener. That’s how I stumbled on research done in 2006 by psychologist John Gottman at the University of Washington.
Gottman and his colleagues decorated their lab to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast. Over a period of time, they invited 130 newlywed couples to spend a day at the retreat and watched as they did what most people do on a typical weekend — prepare meals, chat, clean and hang out.
As Gottman studied the interactions of each couple, he began to notice a pattern. Throughout the day, partners would make small, seemingly insignificant requests for connection from each other. For example, a husband would look out the window and say, “Wow, check out that huge bird!” He wasn’t just commenting on the bird, though; he was looking for his wife to respond with shared interest.
Gottman calls these requests for connection “bids.” The wife could then choose to respond positively (“Wow, that is amazing!”), negatively (“Really? I’ve seen bigger ones at home”) or passively (“Mmm-hmm, that’s nice, dear”). Gottman refers to positive and engaging responses as “turning toward” the bidder and negative and passive responses as “turning away.”
As it turned out, the way couples responded to these bids profoundly affected their marital well-being. Gottman found that couples who had divorced during the six-year follow-up period had “turn-toward bids” just 33% of the time — meaning only one-third of their requests for connection were met with interest and compassion.
In contrast, couples who remained together after the six-year period had “turn-toward bids” 87% of the time. Nearly nine times out of 10, the healthy couples were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
Now here’s the kicker: By observing these types of interactions, Gottman could predict with up to 94% certainty whether couples will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy, years down the road.
It turns out what Gottman referred to as “turning toward” another is simply another way to describe what psychologists refer to as validation — showing interest in and affirming the worth of another person’s comments, requests or emotions.
Research shows that validating someone:
- ... helps them feel heard and understood.
- ...has far-reaching effects.
- ...is a skill that anyone can learn.
While researching validation, I came across a remarkable book, “I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships,” by Michael Sorenson. It’s nothing less than a how-to manual to learn the skill of validation, which I’ve come to believe can transform one’s interactions with others in all kinds of settings.
I figured out that to become a great listener, I had to become a great validator. It was like I’d discovered some secret superpower. And I started validating — everyone.
Sorenson writes that effective validation has two parts:
- It identifies a specific emotion.
- It offers justification for feeling that emotion.
For example, let’s say you’re having coffee with a coworker. You’ve noticed that he seems distracted, frequently checking his phone. So, you ask if there’s some problem. He says, “Oh . . . my wife was supposed to call me when she got home from her doctor’s appointment, but I haven’t heard from her, so I’m a little worried. And she’s not answering her cell.”
What would you say? Offer reassurance? Maybe, “Oh, I’m sure she’s fine. You know how busy she is. She probably just forgot.” Or would you offer advice? “You should leave a message to call you back ASAP.” While both these might help, they would be even more effective if you first took a moment to validate.
To validate your coworker in this situation, you would hold off on the advice and assurance for a moment and instead say something like, “I don’t blame you for being worried, especially if she said she’d call as soon as she got home.”
That response 1) identifies a specific emotion (worry) and 2) offers justification for feeling that emotion (it’s been longer than expected to hear from his wife).
This response shows your friend that you not only hear how he’s feeling but that you understand why he’s feeling that way.
More often than not, people who vent or complain already know how to resolve the situation — they’re just looking for someone to appreciate what they’re going through. While it may seem counterintuitive, validation is often the quickest and easiest way to help people work through their concerns.
Requests for validation are far more common than one might expect. Sorenson estimates that 80% to 90% of conversations have at least one opportunity to validate. If you’re uncertain about whether you have an opportunity to validate, simply listen to see if the other person is sharing something.
Learning the skill of validation has far-reaching benefits. Or put another way, what’s in it for you?
- You’ll be able to calm (and sometimes even eliminate) the concerns, fears or uncertainties of others.
- You’ll be able to provide support and encouragement to others, even when you don’t know how to fix the problem.
- You’ll be able to give advice that sticks.
- You’ll become an all-around more likable human being. Everybody can use a little of that!
Like any skill, learning to validate takes practice. And there are countless ways to do it. But it’s not difficult to get into if you’re mindful of others.
We’ve all spoken to someone who clearly heard the words we were saying but didn’t seem to get what we meant. They listened to you but didn’t really hear you. Next time, take a step back and connect to their emotions. Try saying something like this:
“How are you feeling right now?” Then, "I totally get why you feel that way.”
Trying to really hear others, understand their emotion and validate them has turned me into a much better listener. Yes, I still talk too much. But at least my wife, Katrina, likes talking to me more. A good sign I’m making progress.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.