Listening to Others: Part 4

You have probably been there — a friend shares a problem they are struggling with, you try to reassure them by giving advice, but instead of appreciating your help, your friends only become defensive and frustrated with you.

Why do people share their problems if they don’t want our help?

The reason people share their problems is that they do want your help. But what they want is not your advice.

They want you to validate their feelings.

What is validation?

Validation is the best technique for making someone feel appreciated and heard that I have yet discovered! Validating means that you:

  1. listen for the emotions someone is sharing, and
  2. acknowledge that they are perfectly right in feeling those emotions.

This might look like the following:

Daughter: “I am so worried about this upcoming exam, Dad. I don’t know if I can make it.”
Dad: “I don’t blame you, honey. This is a really hard class you are taking.”

I first learned about validation from the book I Hear You by Michael S. Sorensen — arguably the best book for listening I have ever read!

Why is validation important?

When someone shares a struggle they are going through, our typical response is to jump in and “fix” the situation. Either by reassuring (“Don’t worry, you’ll do great!”) or offering advice (“I think you should…”).

But these responses are both invalidating. When you offer reassurance or advice you are actually saying…

Reassurance: “You are wrong in feeling this way.”
Advice: “I know how to solve your problem better than you do.”

This is why the other person becomes defensive. They hear you saying “You are wrong” or “You are not smart enough to figure out your own problems”. Again, what they want is not having you “fix” the situation for them.

They just want to know that you understand them.

And the best way you can make them feel understood is through validation.

How validation works in practice

Let’s first look at what happens when the listener doesn’t validate. The following is a conversation between a husband and his wife Sorensen’s book I Hear You:

Amy: “Ugh. Emily is driving me crazy!”
David: “What happened?”

Amy: “You know this sisters’ trip we’ve been planning? She keeps changing the plans and doesn’t seem to listen to — or care at all about — what the rest of us want to do.”
David: “Well, have you just told her what you want to do?”

Amy: “Of course I have. We all have! She always seems to have some reason for doing things her way. Ugh. I’m so sick of this.”
David: “You should just tell her that — that you don’t feel like she’s listening.”

Amy: “I’ve tried that. She always does this. I feel like I’m crazy because everyone else just backs down and lets her take over. I’m not about to spend all this money and take a week off work only to have to follow her strict schedule all day!”
David: “Well, if you don’t want to go, don’t go.”

Amy: “Of course I want to go! I just want to go and actually have fun!”
David: “Then just talk to your other sisters. I’m sure you guys can figure it out. Or I’ll talk to her!”

Amy: “No, I can take care of it. I’m just frustrated.”
David: “What if you each planned one day?”

Amy: “It’s not that easy. The sites we want to see are too far apart from each other.”
David: “What if you just booked a tour group instead?”
Amy: “No, we want to do it ourselves.”

David (not quite sure what Amy is expecting from him at this point): “Well, you’d better figure it out soon. Isn’t the trip in a few weeks?”
Amy (now frustrated and ready to end the conversation): “Yeah. It’s okay. I’ll figure it out.”

Why did David’s multiple attempts to help his wife go so poorly? In short, he didn’t recognize that she was looking for validation rather than advice. Amy remained frustrated because David tried to fix the problem right out of the gates instead of first validating her frustration. David also walked away feeling confused and unappreciated because Amy became more upset — and even a little defensive — as he tried to help.

David’s best chance would have been to simply acknowledge that Amy’s frustration was understandable and refrain from offering advice unless she asked for it.

How the conversation could have turned out differently

Here’s how the conversation might have played out had David validated Amy instead of immediately trying to reassure her:

Amy: “Ugh. Emily is driving me crazy!”
David: “What happened?”

Amy: “You know this sisters’ trip we’ve been planning? She keeps changing the plans and doesn’t seem to listen to — or care at all about — what the rest of us want to do.”
David: “Really? What’s up with that?”

Amy: “I don’t know! It’s driving me crazy. The trip is in a few weeks and I’m afraid we won’t be able to get reservations.”
David: “Ugh, that’s so frustrating. What are you going to do?”

Amy: “I don’t know. She always does this. I feel like I’m crazybecause everyone else just backs down and lets her take over. I’m not about to spend all this money and take a week off work only to have to follow her strict schedule all day!”
David: “Well, yeah — you’re splitting everything four ways, right?It’s your vacation as much as it is hers.”

Amy: “Seriously. I’ll figure it out. It’s just so frustrating.”
David: “Yeah, that really would be. Especially if you keep running into this with her.”

Amy: “I do! I’ve just come to expect it from her. Ever since we were kids.”
David: “That would drive me crazy.”

Amy: “Ugh, tell me about it! ”
David: “Ugh, I’m sorry.”

Amy: “It’s okay. I think I’ll just to talk to her about it again. If she really won’t budge . . . I don’t know. I might even do my own thing when we get out there.”
David: “Not a bad idea. Hopefully she loosens up a bit.”

Amy: “Yeah.”

[Brief pause]

Amy: “Anyway, thank you for listening. How was work?”

Summary

When someone shares that they are struggling, we naturally feel we must do something to fix the situation. But the other person doesn’t want you to fix the situation for them. They just want you to understand and appreciate their struggle.

Does this mean that we should never give reassurance or advice? Absolutely not. Both reassurance and advice have a crucial role in conversations. But they should only come after you have validated the other’s emotions. And even when they are used, they should be used sparingly. Remember that:

No one wants to hear your reassurance or advice
before they are sure you understand them.

If you want others to feel appreciated and heard, validate first. Listen for their emotions, invite them to share more, and acknowledge that they are perfectly right in feeling their emotions. Assurance and advice can come later (if they even come at all).

Which people in your life can you begin to validate more?

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Henrik Angelstig

Henrik Angelstig

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I am a 22-year-old bachelor’s student who is a fanatic when it comes to fulfillment, productivity, and helping others achieve goals that matter.