What We Get Wrong About Emotional Validation, And How To Get It Right

Guy Winch's advice for acing this crucial relationship skill.

a man listening to a woman with sincerity in front of an abstract mountain view Pana Design's Images, greenleaf123 from Getty Images, dimaberlinphotos via Canva

When someone is upset or angry with us, whether justifiably or not, the most productive thing we can do is to validate their feelings because doing so will make them far more receptive to our side of things.

Unfortunately, we typically respond with defensiveness, justifications, and counterattacks in such situations — all of which make the other person far less receptive to what we have to say. Indeed, in a recent poll of my newsletter subscribers over 90% of readers agreed that emotional validation — conveying that we get what the other person is feeling and why they're feeling it — is an effective way to soothe another person's feelings. And yet, over 75% of readers admitted to counter-attacking or getting defensive in such situations, and 25% admitted to not knowing how to convey emotional validation well to begin with. 


Emotional validation is a crucial relationship skill and an incredibly useful one for conflict resolution, but doing it can feel scary and intimidating. 

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Why emotional validation feels scary to give sometimes

1. When someone is upset or angry with us, we fear that telling them we understand why they're upset or angry would be like pouring oil on a fire and that it will only 'validate' that they should feel that way — thus make them even angrier or more upset.


2. We're tempted to try to make the problem and blame go away by explaining why they shouldn't feel the way they do — by making their feelings go away. Telling someone they shouldn't feel the way they already do is like pouring oil on a fire, and a guarantee of making them more upset.

3. We believe that if we convey that we get why they feel the way they do, we're basically admitting to wrongdoing on our part. This is not true. We can convey we get their perspective while still maintaining ours — that there was a misunderstanding or miscommunication, faulty expectations, etc... 

4. We were so busy thinking about a defense or a counterattack that we stopped listening, which makes it hard to convey exactly what they're feeling and why and we're afraid to get it wrong.

5. We worry we won't articulate their feelings correctly if we try and that will frustrate them even more. This can be an issue but there are ways around it, as shown in the example section below. 


Misunderstanding #1

We believe we can talk people out of their feelings with reason and logic. 

Reason and logic can't undo how we feel in the moment, at least not immediately. For example, in experiments in which people went through a rigged rejection experience, finding out that the rejection was rigged and 'not real' didn't make their hurt feelings disappear — that still took time.  

RELATED: 7 Signs You're Being Emotionally Invalidated By Your Partner — And What To Do About It

Misunderstanding #2

We believe that acknowledging a person's feelings means that we agree with them about who or what is to blame.

Not at all. You can say, "I realize how frustrated and annoyed you must be after waiting for me for fifteen minutes and missing the start of the movie (acknowledging their feelings), but your text said to meet at 7:30 not 7:15."


The key requirement for validating another person's feelings 

In order to validate someone's feelings we first have to gain a clear understanding of what their feelings are by giving them the space and time to express themselves, and by giving ourselves the space and time to understand their emotional experience by asking for clarifications and elaborations or posing open-ended questions to get more information (e.g., "Tell me what you meant when you said, 'my mind was blown'--in what way?" or "I understand that you felt betrayed but I'd like to understand what specifically by?").

A step-by-step example of emotional validation:

Let's use this scenario for illustration purposes: You were hanging out with another couple and you joked about your partner's cooking. That clearly hurt their feelings, so you (or they) bring it up once you're alone. 

1. Invite them to tell you their perspective of what happened and how they felt about it.

Look at them as they speak, nod, and give other indications that you're interested and taking it in.

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2. Listen with empathy and compassion.

Your task is to get their perspective so you can convey it back to them (remember, conveying you get how they feel does not mean you agree you're to blame).

3. Reflect back in your own words the summary of their points and feelings — all of them.

For example, "So you felt belittled and mocked when I made that joke, and then you were angry that I didn't realize that and went on to tell another story..."

4. Ask questions for further clarity and detail.

Begin by reflecting on the general sentiment: "I get that it was embarrassing when I said your recipe for lasagna was layering one mistake over another--was there anything else I did or said over dinner that made you feel bad?" or "I hear that you were frustrated but I'm not sure I understand what you meant when you said, 'I should have known better'." 

5. Put it all together.

Tell the story of what happened and how they felt about it from their perspective as accurately as you can while checking with them to make sure you're capturing their feelings correctly. If not, ask for clarification or correction and try that part again.


How do you know you did it right? 

Once you're done, they should be able to confirm you understand how they felt and they should look relieved/calmer because feeling seen and understood is immensely cathartic. However, emotional validation takes practice so expect a learning curve. 

If an apology is necessary, now is the time to offer one.


If not, now is the time to introduce your perspective, including any relevant objections or justifications.

For example, "You and I joke about your cooking all the time, so I assumed you weren't sensitive about it and that it was okay to do it in front of our friends. Plus, you made a joke about my driving right before I made that comment so it seems like a double standard. Let's both agree to not make jokes about one another in front of friends."

RELATED: 9 Signs You're Too Emotionally Needy (And How To Fix It)

Guy Winch is a distinguished psychologist and acclaimed author. His work has been featured in The New York Times and Psychology Today.