Don’t Do This No. 2: Validating With Purpose

by Simone Eastman

So, hi! This week we have more of a “Do This” than a “Don’t Do This.” I’m sure you can hang with that? We’re going to learn a magic conversational/emotional trick, which is: validating someone’s experience or feelings without feeling like you’ve been backed into agreeing with them or their choices (or disagreeing, I suppose).

More and more I’ve learned that people will ask you to validate their feelings about something they’ve done or want to do, or about something that already happened (EXCEPT Y’ALL!! unless you want to send your burning etiquette questions here). And even if I’m falling out of my chair to tell them what’s WHAT, it doesn’t make me a very good friend to do that. When might you/I want to respond differently?

  • OK, do you have That Friend? You know. That Friend who keeps doing dumb things, getting dumb results, and complaining to you about it. We all have That Friend. And you’ve tried a million ways to break out of these conversations and try to get somewhere — to get through to her, or to steer the conversation away from whatever the train wreck of the week is — but it doesn’t seem to be working. OK!
  • Or maybe (as I have discussed previously) someone you know is making a really catastrophically bad choice.
  • Or you’re in an argument with someone who’s done something awful or won’t take responsibility for his behavior and you’re both angry and not getting anywhere.
  • Or you just don’t know what to say, because whatever she’s laying down is something you don’t understand or really Get. (I’m thinking specifically here of when someone you care about has had some awful, catastrophic thing happen to them: a loved one has died or something really terrible has happened.)

How can you respond to this person without giving advice or taking a position or resorting to talking about yourself?

The trick is basically this: when someone says something about their experience or their feelings, sometimes the best thing to do is to describe it back to them before you share any personal response or opinion. I actually think that a big part of being A Good Listener comes from being able to do this. And maybe you’re a little skeptical slash maybe it feels a little obvious or dumb to actually do it. I Get You, girl. It can feel a little silly. But it totally works!

There are a few ways to go about this. One is to actually observe how someone’s voice sounds, how she looks, what expression she has, what her body is telling you. This can be a good one when you’re in a position where YOUR feelings really matter — like you’re in an argument or a disagreement in which you have something at stake. You can change the direction of the conversation by just describing what you see and hear. “You sound really frustrated about the situation.” “I can tell that you’re upset because your shoulders look really tense.” “You look sad.” “You sound angry. I can tell by your tone that you’re really mad at [me, you, everyone we know! ha! li’l Miranda July joke there!]” It’s sort of like holding a mirror up to them, which sometimes helps people who are all het up to pause and take stock. But more than that, being able to see that you see them often feels like a gift to people, like a profound relief.

A second way to validate is by telling them what you hear them saying — by actually repeating and rephrasing what you think you’ve heard. Sometimes you don’t understand what someone means and so checking in about it gives them a chance to go back and try again before the conversation charges off in the COMPLETELY WRONG DIRECTION. It also makes them feel like you’re really paying attention. You can preface your rephrase with “What I hear you saying is,” which feels kind of cheesy but I find gets people’s attention. Maybe it would be like this: “So I hear you saying that when I ate the last plum in the ice box, you really felt deeply betrayed.”

A third way to validate, especially if you’re trying to move the conversation along in one way or another, is to sort of imagine how they might feel and then tell them about it. Like, “I imagine you probably feel pretty lonely after dinosaurs ate your entire family.” Or “I would be really scared if I just found out that red M&Ms contain rat poison [REMEMBER THAT? The 1980s were a scary time] and I’d been eating them by the handful for years. Are you scared?”

And yes, I 100% understand that when I describe these things to you they probably sound completely stupid. But they really work, and you might notice that none of them include an opinion of any kind or concession or an agreement. I have been practicing these strategies in a sort of sheepish way, and one day a couple weeks ago the following conversation happened:

FRIEND: I haven’t gotten into any of the grad schools I applied to and I’m waiting to hear from two more, but I’m pretty sure they are going to be rejections.

ME: [thinking about all the things I could say, like ‘That really sucks!’ or ‘I’m sure it will work out!’ or ‘Okay, but why did you wait until the last minute to apply? What did you expect?’, then deciding on]: You sound really sad. That must be really, really disappointing.

FRIEND: [pause] Yeah, you know something? It totally IS and you’re the only person who’s said that.

ME: [totally floored that this stupid shit actually works] Well, I can imagine it must be hard to feel like you put a lot of effort into this and it isn’t panning out.

I didn’t tell her it would be fine — for all I know, it won’t be. And I didn’t Monday-night-quarterback her earlier decisions — she’ll take whatever lessons she wants to. All I did was tell her what I heard and how I imagined she might feel. It’s hard for me to tell you what to say next, of course, because we aren’t all reading from my scripts all the time. (BUT I WISH WE WERE!!1!!) I know that validating someone in this way can interrupt and redirect hard conversations, and it can also make people feel heard and seen, and maybe feel a little safer and better equipped to hear what you have to say next. It also gives you a little more time to think. But if you’re burning up inside with an opinion, then you can just ask “would you like to know what I think?” That’s a game-changer, too.

Previously: Don’t Do This No. 1: Popping the Popped Question.

Simone Eastman is a cat lady.