Empathy and validation

Recently, my sons and I were on a long hike. It was supposed to be a medium sized hike, but we had to take a very long detour, adding about an hour and a half to two hours to our round-trip. Normally, my sons quite enjoy hiking and being in the forest, but by the time we got to the bottom of the hill that we had planned to hike, they were starting to show signs of frustration and exhaustion. We took more breaks, stopped for lunch earlier than we had planned, and so on. Nevertheless, about 10 to 15 minutes before the peak, my older son wanted to stop. At this point, I noticed something very interesting about my ability to empathize and validate what he was going through. If I was completely focused on what I wanted, namely my desire to get to that peak after all the work we did taking a detour, I had a much harder time understanding where he was coming from. Being focused on myself made it difficult to take his needs into consideration.

The reason this was coming to mind this morning is that we just finished teaching our group some interpersonal effectiveness skills at my clinic. One of the interpersonal effectiveness skills involves validation, or expressing understanding of another person’s perspective or experiences. In order to effectively express understanding of another person’s experiences, you really have to focus on that other person. You have to jump into that person’s shoes and try to see things from her or his perspective. This is probably why it’s hard to express understanding or to validate someone else when we are completely focused on our own feelings, thoughts, opinions, or reactions. The next time you’re in a heated discussion with someone, try focusing on that other person. Just for a moment, let go of your preferences, feelings, urges, and opinions. Mindfully attend to the other person, listen to her or him, and make the first thing that comes out of your mouth a validating statement. You can always express how you feel later on, but when the other person is talking, mindfully attend to her or him, even if you don’t want to.

Another interesting thing that I noticed was that, when people are under a lot of duress, simply saying that you understand where they’re coming from sometimes isn’t enough. I could use all of my clinical psychology validation skills to try to express understanding of where my son was coming from, but this would go nowhere if I wasn’t willing to either stop the hike or take more prolonged and frequent breaks. If you accidentally stood on someone’s foot on the skytrain, simply telling the person that you understand how painful it must be is probably going to go nowhere unless you lift your foot! If somebody were to tell you that she or he is very thirsty, and your response was to say that you can understand how difficult it is to be thirsty, this probably would not exactly hit the mark. Sometimes, talk is sufficient, but at other times, actions speak much louder than words when it comes to empathizing with and validating others’ experiences. See if you can use both words and actions to express empathy and understanding in your relationships. Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.