The outcome of a challenging conversation is often determined well before any actual dialogue. Perhaps the single most important ingredient is the attitude one takes into it. The more empathetic an attitude you can adopt towards the other person beforehand, the more likely it will result in validation – and a conversation that enhances rather than degrades the relationship.
Having an empathetic attitude towards the other person involves an attitude that their thoughts are to be respected (even if disagreed with) and their feelings are always “true” and deserve to be honored. This is especially important when the other person has negative feelings towards you, such as frustration or anger.
Adopting an empathetic attitude towards the other person can be difficult, especially if it is a relationship that has a history of arguments and negative conversations. Nevertheless, it is the single most important ingredient in the validation process.
“The attitude of awareness that anyone you meet, no matter what they are doing, makes sense before they open their mouths to tell you about it. It is also the actions of communicating that attitude. A learned posture of contentment with another person’s differing point of view.”
The implication of this is that if the other person doesn’t “make sense” to you, then it is not that they are being irrational or crazy, but rather there is information that you are lacking. The attitude of Pre-Validation has profound implications when responding to blame or criticism. It means that instead of reacting with defensiveness or counter-attack, you seek the missing information so as to understand the sense of what they are saying. Since they always “make sense,” there will always be information from them that will reveal the sense of what they are saying. An effective way of achieving this is through the process of validation.
Adopting an attitude of Pre-Validation is very empowering since doesn’t depend at all on what the other person does or doesn’t do; you can adopt an attitude of empathy all by yourself regardless of whether the other person is “on board” or not.
Some Barriers to Pre-Validation
Judgment has its place, but is a significant barrier to Pre-Validation. It is impossible to have an attitude of Pre-Validation towards someone while judging them.
Self-judgment is often the culprit underlying an inability to Pre-Validate. It is impossible to see another person as “okay” and “making sense” while beating oneself up inside.
Disagreeing is a barrier to Pre-Validation because it focuses attention on how the other person doesn’t “make sense.” How can you believe that the other person makes sense when you start by believing that they don’t?
Agreeing can also be a stumbling stone to Pre-Validation, oddly enough. Agreeing is a conditional acceptance of the other person – they “make sense” only as long as you agree with them. When agreement is the filter through which the other person is seen, as soon as there is a point of disagreement, they stop making sense. They are okay only as long as you agree with them. Pre-Validation is orthogonal to the agreement/disagreement dimension.
If the concept of Pre-Validation is new to you, it is likely that (like myself) you have some concerns and “yeah-buts” about it.
• What if the other person actually doesn’t make sense?
Know that if they don’t make sense, it simply means that you haven’t understood their sense yet. The key word is “yet.” Adopting an attitude of Pre-Validation facilitates entering a dialogue in which you can discover their sense. That still doesn’t invalidate your sense, even if different from theirs. It might be helpful to inquire into your own beliefs about others who have a different perspective than yourself. Can you be comfortable and accepting of the person? Can you accept that there is a sense to their beliefs, even if you don’t see it?
• What if the other person is just flat-out wrong?
The other person may have a set of “facts” available to them that you see as falsehoods. You can ask yourself, “If I had this same set of facts, does their position make sense?” I have never encountered anyone for which this wasn’t the case. That is, given the facts that are believed, the conclusion makes perfect sense. Pre-Validation then applies to the underlying facts as well. In other words, there is always a perfectly good reason why someone believes something. Instead of arguing, it is generally beneficial to accept that there is sense in what they believe.
• What if I don’t feel okay about myself?
This is perhaps the biggest stumbling-stone to Pre-Validation (and Validation as well). The more genuine self-esteem you can develop, the more effective you will be at Pre-Validation (as well as Validation). A starting place to inquire into this are the beliefs you might be holding about your own beliefs as they relate to others. Are you okay if someone close to you holds a different opinion, or must there be agreement for you to feel okay about yourself? Does you sense of self-worth depend on others’ approval, and is that approval only forthcoming when there is agreement?
Pre-Validation and Empathy
Pre-Validation is a crucial building block towards having empathy for the other person, the unconditional acceptance of another person’s feelings. Empathy is the basis for having an “I-Thou” relationship with another person. Feelings are always “true” for everyone, since what we feel is what we feel. Thoughts and beliefs are a pre-cursor to feelings, however.
An empathetic attitude is most helpful when you are caught off-guard by a critical or blaming statement. This attitude helps you not to take the remark personally, and to understand that they are simply attempting to get some need met in the best way they know how. Learning to validate the underlying feelings of a critical statement is key to turning a potential argument into a positive step for the relationship.
An empathetic attitude in turn helps you not take criticism personally. When someone criticizes or blames you, then empathy means that their feelings are valid, and Pre-Validation means that there is sense in what they are expressing. Usually in such a situation you are not seeing their sense; that means it is all the more important not to react in the usual ways (defensive, counter-attacking, etc.) but rather to be curious about discovering what their sense might be. This opens the path to utilizing some tools of Validation to help the confrontation become a positive one for the relationship.
I call this attitude of empathy and Pre-Validation “coming from the heart,” or being “heart-centered.” That places the emphasis on the part that neither reacts from painful feelings (being the Victim), nor the part that blames and criticizes (being the Judge). Coming from the heart means not making oneself “wrong” and not making the other person “wrong.”
Pre-Validation and Validation
With an attitude of Pre-Validation, you are well positioned to Validate whenever the need arises. A tool for listening becomes and ineffective “technique” unless it is used with a heart-centered attitude. Otherwise, it can become a tool for manipulation rather than for hearing and understanding.
With an attitude of Pre-Validation, the specific technique or words become less important. While there are some very effective tools that facilitate Validation, they will be useless without an attitude that paves the way to understanding and empathy. The objective is to increase the sharing of thoughts and feelings with the other person, to be in an “I-Thou” with them. Disagreements and conflicts thus become gateways to deeper intimacy and better relationships.