How to Validate Someone's Feelings

Person writing in a diary

One of the most powerful ways that you can show your support to someone is to validate their feelings.

Emotional validation involves empathetic listening and affirming the other person’s feelings. Studies have shown that validating someone’s feelings is an effective way to provide comfort when they’re in need.

Emotional validation can help you…

  • Become more mindful and attentive to someone’s feelings  
  • Improve your personal and professional relationships
  • Strengthen your feelings of empathy
  • Understand and recognize your own emotions

Here are some of the ways that you can use verbal and body language to validate someone’s feelings and show compassion.

Using validating language 

We all want to be seen and heard. But sometimes, the language that we use to comfort someone can unintentionally invalidate their feelings. 

When we’re trying to comfort someone, we may be using dismissive language without even realizing it. After all, it’s human nature to want to make someone feel better when they are in pain. Our reflex is to offer a quick verbal bandaid. We use phrases like “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad” or “You’ll get over it soon” as a way to provide relief and inject positivity. Although these expressions come from a good place, they can invalidate someone’s experience or feelings. 

An invalidating phrase can sound like…

  • It’s okay, you’ll be fine
  • Why are you so upset?
  • It’s not that bad
  • You’re overreacting
  • Look on the bright side

You may be surprised to find that positive statements like “look on the bright side” or “cheer up” can invalidate someone’s feelings. When a friend or loved one is upset, they’re not necessarily ready to be positive. They need time to express their emotions and someone to hear them out. And telling someone “stay positive” or “it’s not that bad” can feel dismissive or make them question their own feelings. 

Now let’s take a look at some examples of validating statements:

  • I’m so sorry that happened.
  • That must’ve been really painful.
  • I see that you care about this.
  • That must’ve really hurt you.
  • Do you want to talk more about it? 

Validating statements express your compassion and your willingness to listen.

Active listening

One of the most effective ways to express empathy and recognize someone’s feelings is by actively listening. 

Active listening means removing ourselves from our phones, screens, and monitors, and giving our full attention to the other person. But as we all know too well, this is easier said than done! If possible, take steps to remove distractions and make it easier to listen. If you work in an office, make sure that you’re in a private location or that your schedule is blocked off so that you’re not disturbed. Even something as small as putting your phone on airplane mode or putting it in your bag, can help you stay focused on your conversation.

Here are other steps you can take to engage in active listening: 

Summarize. A way to let someone know that they are being heard is to summarize what they’re saying. When the other person has finished talking, you can offer statements like “So what I’m hearing is…” or “It sounds like…” or “When x,y,z happened…” This is a good way to make sure that you’re understanding what’s being said. It also offers an opportunity for the person to express themselves and articulate their feelings.

Body language. So much of what we’re thinking and feeling is expressed through our own body language. For example, eye contact shows that you’re engaged, whereas rolling your eyes is a sign of judgment. Slouching conveys that you’re bored, while sitting up straight means you’re attentive. Of course, we can’t always be aware of our body, but reminding ourselves now and then can help. Sitting up straight, maintaining eye contact, and nodding are all small, but impactful ways to show that you’re engaged in the conversation. 

Ask questions. When there’s a pause in the conversation or if the timing feels right, you can ask questions to better understand the situation. You can ask them how they feel or to clarify their thoughts or if you’re understanding something correctly. While asking questions is a good way to show your interest, keep in mind that you don’t want to barrage them with too many questions. Try not to interrupt and allow them to finish talking. If you feel that a question would help them open up or give them a chance to talk, ask it.

Developing your self-awareness and self-compassion 

“Empathy has to start at home,” states Dr. Jamil Zaki, a psychology professor at Stanford.

In other words, we need to practice self-compassion and strengthen our own self-awareness, in order to be better listeners. 

When we deny our own feelings and emotions, we might reflexively behave the same way toward others. But when we learn to accept our own feelings and emotions, we’ll be able to better empathize with our friends, family, and coworkers. 

Here are some simple exercises you can do to build your compassion and self-awareness muscles.

Journaling. Journal writing is a simple but powerful way to develop self-awareness. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on our experiences and process our feelings. It’s a non-judgmental forum to express ourselves openly and articulate our inner thoughts. Sometimes, just being able to identify our feelings and understand our reactions, can give us a better idea of what someone else may be going through. 

Self-care. Self-care may seem counter to empathy and compassion to others, but when we treat ourselves with kindness, we are able to treat others with kindness. Self-care doesn’t have to mean an expensive massage or spa treatment, it can simply be doing something gentle for yourself. Whether it’s a positive mantra or taking a morning walk, an act of self-care will expand your compassion for yourself and to others. 

Mindful activity. Activities like meditation, coloring, yoga, and taking a walk help you achieve mindfulness. When we’re mindful, we’re more aware of the present moment. And this can help us recognize our emotions and feelings. Being aware of our own emotional and inner state will help us be more accepting of others, and listen to them without judgment.
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