Essential Communication Skills for Couples: How Validation Helps Relationships Flow Smoothly
Posted on June 20th, 2013 at 9:00 am
Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate, ask yourself “Is it true.”
At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary.”
At the third gate ask, “Is it kind.” (Sufi Saying)
Have you ever been in a discussion with your spouse and had things spiral out of control? You may have said something, your partner responded in a critical tone, and you became defensive and reacted to that. Before you knew it a small issue escalated into a major conflict, leaving both of you hurt and frustrated. When each person in a relationship feels they are not being heard and understood, they up the ante in order to be heard, creating a cycle of negative reinforcement. One relationship skill particularly useful in avoiding this spiral of miscommunication cycle is validation.
How you respond to your partner’s emotions has a great deal of influence on the quality of your relationship. By reacting defensively, stonewalling, or returning criticism when you hear certain words, tone, or see certain facial signals, you shut the door on opportunities for understanding and connection. When you can see past the surface agitation and validate your partner, you increase the likelihood that he or she will then validate you, and both of your emotional needs will be met. The following tips for using validation can help open the door to understanding, communication, and true intimacy:
- Do a Self-Check-in: Ensure you are calm before communicating, especially physiologically. After experiencing a stressor it takes the average person 20 minutes to return to a normal level of self-calmness (see my previous blog post on self-calming).
- Rehearse: Practice communication skills in advance. John Gottman calls this “over learning.” Although it may feel foreign and uncomfortable (even corny), rehearsal helps make important communication skills available when you really need them. In the heat of the moment, most of us engage in destructive, hurt, or vengeful thoughts. Prevent this by rehearsing validating responses ahead of time.
- Understand and Empathize: Nothing is more important in a relationship than being understood. You do not have to agree with your partner; just agree that these feelings are right for him or her. When you see or hear something that makes you reactive, use your inner editor to revise your self-talk: “She has had a hard stressful day at work, she does not need me to find a solution; she wants me to listen to her.”
“Assumptions are the termites of relationships,” Henry Winkler said. Understanding is the antidote to assumption (and the cascade of negative inner thoughts it generates). Put yourself in your partner’s shoes and understand how he or she feels; understand your partner’s feelings and consider them valid. Most of us get stuck here. In an intimate relationship we often feel that what our partner feels or thinks must be the same, and if they say or think something differently it invalidates us. In actuality, it is just the opposite—when differences are accepted and valued, relationships thrive. When you reach for validation through invalidating means it will only escalate the negative cycle. When you offer validation with no strings attached, the likelihood that your partner will in turn reciprocate increases greatly.
- Recognize the thought patterns that accompany certain feelings: Often, emotions are experienced physically first (especially for men). If your teeth clench or your face tightens up when your partner talks about being upset by dirty dishes, there is a good chance you have unrecognized internal thoughts that lead to defensiveness, withdrawal, or counter complaining. When you notice these patterns you can do something about them.
- Take Responsibility: If your partner complains about something you did or did not do, instead of becoming defensive, own it. Sometimes a heartfelt apology is the best validation. As humans, our first language that of emotional connectivity. It is hard to not be defensive when you hear something you feel is harsh but this is the paradox of relationships: when you can see the emotional meaning beneath what your significant other is saying and validate this, the tension disappears. Your inner dialogue should focus on emotional connection: “Will my response bring us closer or further apart.”
- Avoid Zingers: Cut the “Yes But” from your reply. “I see how you feel but I don’t agree because...” or “Yes, but you always...” When you “Yes, but” you invalidate. It is like saying, “You are right and you are wrong” (Gottman). Your own need to be validated can only be met when an emotional connection is present.
- Be Genuine: Validation must be genuine to be effective. If you have a hard time doing this, look at your internal dialogue—how you might be sabotaging communication by prejudging what your partner feels or says (not being able to separate yourself from your partner’s views), or even not allowing any communication. The goal of validation is genuine empathy. When both people in a relationship feel heard, understood, and accepted, the relationship is on solid ground.
- Trust Your Partner: Trust that he or she is not out to get you—that they have your best interests at heart and that the emotion you feel is their emphasis about how they feel at present (an exclamation point) not a personal attack (Gottman).
- Choose to be polite regardless of what you perceive your partner is doing (but don’t use this to feel justified indignation or like a victim) (Gottman).
Validation is an art, the more you practice the more refined your skills will become. Look for opportunities throughout your day to practice validating your partner and soon you will notice the transformation of negative patterns into opportunities for connection, understanding, and intimacy.