Let’s talk about the art of validation. To validate is so much more than active listening. It’s not just repeating back to someone what they have said, it’s taking the time to try to understand another person’s perspective – even when you disagree – especially when you disagree. It is temporarily putting yourself in their shoes and saying, “I would probably feel the same way if I were you,” or “I see why you’d feel that way under the circumstances.”
Think of good therapists, for example. They don’t argue or give unsolicited advice: instead they walk alongside a client, listening and validating. After a client has finished articulating their feelings to this non-judgmental listener, ideally they’re able to come up with their own solution to the problem. When it comes to friends and family, however, finding someone who’ll be a non-judgmental listener can be difficult, no matter how close we are. When someone interrupts us to argue or give unwanted advice, it feels like we aren’t being heard and we aren’t being allowed to express our true feelings. We end up debating in self-defense, or simply shutting down. In the frustration that comes from longing to be understood, we find ourselves stuck in feedback loops: sharing our view again and again in the hopes that they’ll finally get it. Ongoing invalidation can be greatly damaging to a relationship. We’ve all experienced being misunderstood, and therefore know how hurtful it is.
What’s more, it’s human nature to take a contrary view whenever we feel backed into a corner and put on the defensive.
Even if we don’t necessarily believe the contrary view we’re asserting, if the feedback loop lasts for too long (we feel misunderstood), our contrary view (or their’s) might indeed become solidified, and neither of us will ever discover the true heart of the other. But if instead of arguing or advising or trying to cheer someone up with platitudes when they come to us to unburden, we let them share their deepest laments without judging them (i.e. listen and validate, even if we disagree), they’ll in many cases be able to see the folly of their own view as they are expressing it (or we’ll see our own folly!). This is perhaps hardest to do when their vent is an accusation toward us. The kneejerk reaction in the heat of the moment is to defend ourselves. By resisting this temptation and validating their concerns instead (which doesn’t mean accepting false guilt or tolerating verbal abuse, don’t get me wrong), we give them the chance to see the situation more clearly as things cool down (because they won’t feel pushed into contrariness through wounded pride).
Now, if the person actually does request advice, it’s better to try to get them to think of their own solutions by asking first what they think they should do. If they still can’t think of anything, offer a few suggestions but frame them in a “This may or may not work, you can take it or leave it” kind of way, so that if they don’t want to try it or if it doesn’t work, they won’t feel guilty or resentful toward you after the fact. Also, if possible, wait a day or a few days before doing follow-up (suggestions and self-defense are best shared when it’s no longer the heat of the moment). Use the first day to just listen and validate them while they vent/rant, then follow-up next time (say with a phone call or email) with some possible suggestions.
The art of validation brings to mind the book of Job in the Old Testament. The first couple of weeks after his tragedy, Job’s friends sat quietly grieving with him and letting him freely lament. Unfortunately, they didn’t keep this up. At the end of the book God says that when they grieved with Job they did the right thing, but as soon as they started self-righteously lecturing and judging him, they erred. So that puts to mind Paul’s words in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
See, this is why platitudes are so ostracizing and offensive. No one who is mourning wants to be told to cheer up. Such comments, no matter how well-intended, are deeply hurtful. But if the mourning person herself eventually attempts to look at things positively, that’s the time to encourage her by validating her own statements. So mourn with her when she mourns, and rejoice with her when she rejoices. That’s solidarity. Stay in sync with the grieving person by mirroring: letting them take the lead (because you can’t change another person’s feelings – only they can do that).
On a side note, I’m not saying we should always mirror the other person. In the case of anger or grumpiness, we shouldn’t let someone else’s bad mood ruin our day. By validating their emotions, however, we give them a chance to let go of them – so they in turn can mirror our more positive mood.
Let’s consider here the therapeutic nature of prayer. When I pour out my heart to God, it helps me articulate my feelings and crystalize my thoughts – it clears the clutter in my mind and often gives me a new perspective. In expressing those feelings and concerns out loud, I begin to have enough clarity to think of possible solutions. In many ways it’s like talking to a therapist.
Maybe this is why God can seem so silent.
I mean, it’s right there in Job isn’t it. When Job’s friends mourned with him silently, he was comforted, but when they judged and lectured him he was plunged into isolation and the exhaustion of defending himself. His grief was thereby doubled through their lack of validation and understanding. When we pray, God listens quietly, mourning with us or rejoicing with us. He doesn’t lecture, debate, criticize, judge, or invalidate, which would put us on the defensive or cause us to shut down (as we do with people). He just listens in a caring way. “Cast all your cares on him for he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) God is silent so that we can rest in his solidarity.
This leads to the inevitable question, if he is quiet when we mourn, is he loud when we rejoice? Well, how might that loudness manifest? People often say God feels closest when they’re feeling happiest. When we’re happy we’re full of praise and gratitude and hallelujahs and God is so good, and we feel like God’s presence surrounds us. I wonder if the answer is to be found in the concept of mirroring.
Joy is contagious. But so is misery. If you sit with a miserable person, you quickly begin to feel the same way. So if God is truly mourning with us, he is truly going to be a fellow mourner. And mourning feels terrible, it does need feel warm like joy – it is lonely, cold, and painful. If God is mirroring those dark emotions we’re feeling, sitting with us in solidarity because he genuinely cares and grieves with us, then in our pain and loneliness, we are going to feel like God isn’t there, because we associate God’s presence with the feel-good emotions of happiness, joy, and security.
So in conclusion, as we strive to better validate our friends and loved ones, learning to sit with them quietly and without judgment as Job’s friends sat with him (those first few weeks before they erred), perhaps we’ll begin to see too that when we feel the most lack in our own lives, when God is silent, he is actually just as present with us as he is during times of plenty.