When someone shares something that they are struggling with, they are not usually looking for advice or problem-solving unless they specifically ask for it. More often, they are looking for support and validation. If you are not used to validating, here are some concrete suggestions. These strategies are based on the Buddhist philosophy that we all have the capacity to solve our own problems when our minds are clear and we can see things objectively and without emotional bias. This concept is expressed in a book called How to be a Help Instead of a Nuisance by Karen Wegela, a psychologist at the Naropa Institue in Boulder, Colorado. This particular list started with Marcia Linehan’s list of validation skills with my edits, elaborations and examples. All of these levels of validation are important skills for building and maintaining relationships with others.
Show that you are paying attention (nodding, eye contact, leaning in, etc.) and actually hearing the story. Saying things like “Uh-huh”, “Go on” or “Then what”, are often helpful and it can also be helpful to just pause and look expectant for the next element of the story. You don’t have to talk to fill the quiet space. Don’t let yourself get distracted. You are listening, not texting or glancing around to see what is going on around you. This requires patience and patience improves with practice. If it is appropriate to provide support, you might say something like “Gee that’s awful” or “That sounds really hard” or “I see that you are having a rough time with this.”
Reflect or rephrase for content
Try to reflect, paraphrase or restate the substance of what you have heard in a tone of voice that reflects the underlying question: “Help me understand?” After you have responded, gently ask “Is that right?” as if you really want to know. “You sound really hopeless about ever meeting your soul mate. Is that right?” Aspire to be accurate, non-judgmental and kind. You don’t have to agree that their perception of the problem is accurate at this point. At some point, you will begin to really see it from their point of view and then you will be able to validate.
Read between and behind the words for an underlying feeling
Here is where the listening really pays off. If you can imagine what they could be feeling, thinking or wishing for, you can say that. The more you practice reading behind the words, the better you can get at it. It too is a skill set that can be acquired. “Sounds like you are really scared about how your life is going to go if you don’t meet your soul mate.” might be a more accurate description of the situation. It is always important to check for accuracy by questioning again “Is that right?”
Validate based on history
You don’t have to validate the ultimate truth of the person’s perceptions. What we are looking for here is the recognition that given their personal history and their experiences, you can see why they feel the way that they do. "Since your mother always criticized your clothes, I can see why you'd be worried about how your clothes look." or "Since you felt you had to be perfect for your dad, I understand why you feel like you have to be perfect for your husband.” “Anyone who has been through what you have been through, would be … too.” is a validating statement. “It is reasonable for you to feel the way you do under the circumstances.”
Validate based on human nature and the evolutionary value of the pattern
It can be tricky to avoid the implication that the person is defective in some way because they are biologically vulnerable. A statement like “It is normal to be nervous before a public talk.” could be problematic because the person may think that s/he is better than normal and it may sound like it minimizes their discomfort. A more helpful response might be something like “Almost everybody gets nervous about public speaking. We all want to make a good impression. We do care what other people think. That is part of our biological heritage. We may not like it but it would not be skillful to avoid everything that makes us anxious. It is important to see it for what it is. Then we can begin to make changes.”
I often find it useful to remind students that many of the discomforts of life have some significance in the survival of their individual genetic mix. For example, our anxiety before a public talk or before a competition is protective. Moderate levels of anxiety improve performance. When the anxiety is too strong, of course, it can cause performance problems. However, the brain has also evolved override mechanisms that allow us to be anxious and ‘do it anyway’. The two most common ones are intense focus on just the goal in the moment (mindfulness practice) and the ability to downregulate the stress response with breath slowing or some other similar process. Both of these require mental discipline and practice.
Be authentic and avoid giving advice if you can help it.
Giving advice creates a power differential that can be harmful in interpersonal relationships. When you tell someone what you think they should do, it creates the sense that you have intelligence and power and that the other person doesn’t. That is why it is so easy to do. We are designed to want to be helpful which can give us a sense of power and reduce our own discomfort when we see someone we love behaving unskillfully. When you feel the urge to give advice, reflect on your own motives. Consider whether it is to show your authority, to manage your own discomfort with what they are doing, or to really be helpful to them. Typically advice giving can be avoided by simply sharing your own experience with a similar situation. “When I want my husband to do something different, I find that ____ works for me.” “When I experience ____, what works for me is ___. I don’t know whether that would work for you or not. I’m sure that if you think about it, you will figure out a way to get through that difficult situation.”
There are occasions when an individual clearly cannot make a wise decision. They may be physically or mentally ill or they may be under the influence of an intoxicant of some sort. If you have discerned that the individual is not capable and you have exhausted all other resources to try to help them alone, get some help and support for yourself. Pause, listen, breathe, and reflect. And you will learn what you need to know to be helpful. And maybe you will learn that there is nothing you can do except to keep from making it worse by getting out of the way.