There are many ways to respond when a partner is upset or angry with us. We can shut down and clam up, launch a counterattack, try to reason with them, make excuses, explain why they are wrong, offer a quick apology and hope that will be the end of it, and others. However, none of those alternatives will calm things down and lower the tension between you as much as doing one crucial thing — providing emotional validation.
Emotional validation involves conveying that we understand how a person feels and acknowledging they have every right to feel that way. Yes, telling someone who is upset or furious with us that they have every right to be seems highly counterintuitive; it might seem that doing so would only make them even angrier or more upset. Yet, when we convey that exact message — and do so from a place of empathy and sympathy — magic happens (psychologically speaking). Rather than fueling the other person’s fire, our message can actually douse the flame.
Guy Winch Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker and author. His books, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014) and The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company, 2011) have been translated into twenty languages, and his TED Talk Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Emotional validation is something we all crave far more than we realize. When we are upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed, or hurt, what we want most is for the other person to "get" it and to convey to us that they do with a dollop of empathy and compassion. If you think back to a time you were a recipient of true emotional validation, you will recognize that having your feelings validated accurately and with empathy is powerfully cathartic, and the recipient is likely to experience a significant and immediate sense of visceral relief.
The problem is that true cathartic experiences of this kind are actually hard to come by, because emotional validation is a skill set most of us have not developed. But it is very much worth practicing. When both members of a couple use emotional validation, their disagreements will be kinder, gentler, and far more productive.
The 5 Steps of Emotional Validation
Note: It is important to perform all 5 steps correctly to achieve the desired impact.
1. Let the person complete their narrative so that you have all the facts, and more important, so that they know you are aware of their feelings; otherwise, your effort to validate them will not seem genuine.
2. Tell them that you get what happened to them from their perspective — whether you agree with that perspective or not, and even if their perspective is skewed. Doing this is not an admission of wrongdoing: You can let them know that you get their point of view and still advocate for a different one.
3. Tell them that you understand how they felt as a result of what happened, from their perspective. Try to name specific feelings here, rather than stating generalities.
4. Tell them their feelings are completely reasonable — which they are, given their perspective.
5. Convey empathy or sympathy for their hurt or angry feelings. Again, doing this is not an admission of fault, because you can always add your perspective later (e.g., “I get how annoyed you must have felt waiting for me at the restaurant for a half-hour and that it put you in a terrible mood. But your text said to meet you at 8:00, not 7:30.”).
Lastly, emotional validation is always more effective when both members of the couple practice it. So you might want to share this article with your partner.