A How to Guide to Validation

Back to Blog   Posted:   November 10, 2020 by

A How to Guide to Validation

To validate means to acknowledge the validity in what someone else is saying, or feeling. Validation is important in every relationship, and it is thought that parental invalidation can be damaging to children (sometimes contributing to the development of borderline personality disorder). Validation is a key concept in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Validation is about conveying to that other person that they are understood, accepted, and that their emotions are valid. However, we need to recognize that different people have different validation needs. People tend to assume that feedback or attempts to problem solve are helpful. Maybe someone said the exact same thing to you previously and it made you feel better! However, if we aren’t focused on the other person we may end up being invalidating, even when we’re trying to help.

So HOW do you validate?

Validation is about finding the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective so they feel understood. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree, approve, or like what the other person is doing. You are simply expressing some understanding about where the other person is coming from. The more we can express understanding, the better… but, in any circumstances, we can show at least a little.

We validate for many reasons. Validation:

Demonstrates we are listening and understand
Shows that we are being nonjudgmental
Improve our relationships
Takes away the pressure to prove who is right
Decreases anger
Makes problem solving and support possible, while also making others more open to what we have to say
Invalidation HURTS!

However, we only validate the valid (hint, emotions are always valid because they represent a person’s experience). When we validate something that isn’t valid, we are reinforcing it, or strengthening it through reward. We can validate the facts of a situation, a person’s experiences, beliefs, feelings, opinions, thoughts, and suffering. In DBT, we teach six levels of validation as well as self-validation, which we will explore a bit further.

Level One Validation: Stay Awake and Pay Attention

The first level is to just pay attention, and in doing so, you are treating the individual and what they are saying as meaningful and important. Things to be mindful of include your nonverbal expressions (i.e., rolling your eyes, making a judgmental face, crossing your arms, having a judgmental tone of voice, looking at your phone). We can ignore a person who is insulting us and then re-engage once they can have an effective conversation.

Level Two Validation: Reflect Back

Level two validation is accurately reflecting back what the person is saying without judgment. However, in doing this, we have to be open to correction! 

“I hear you’re really upset right now because they got your coffee order.”

“You’re feeling frustrated because you have the thought that your coworker is out to get you.”

Level Three Validation: Read Minds

Level three validation is to “read minds,” also known as interpersonal sensitivity. In order to read minds, we pay attention to voice tone, body language, and behavior while then expressing what you think the person may be feeling or thinking. We have to be open to correction with this level of validation too because we aren’t actually mind readers. Using tentative language like “I’m guessing that,” or “I’m wondering if” can be really helpful.

“I’m so sorry you didn’t get that job that you wanted… I’m guessing you must be really disappointed.”

“It bet it hurt a lot when she said that.”

Level Four Validation: Show Understanding

Level four validation communicates an understanding of the cause. You are looking for how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the person makes sense given the person’s history or current situation, even if you don’t approve of the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors themselves.

“It makes sense that you are anxious to be in a new relationship, given how heartbroken you were over your last breakup”

“It makes sense that you’re angry about that DUI when you waited for an hour to drive after your last drink and thought that you were under the legal limit.”

“It makes sense that you thought doing drugs again would make you feel better in the moment.”

Level Five Validation: Acknowledge the Valid

Level five validation requires acknowledging the valid. Here, we are communicating that a person’s experience makes sense given the present facts of the situation. We also act on what we view as valid. 

“Of course you feel devastated, you just lost your job.”

“It makes sense you’re upset, you had a very hard day!”

Level five validation also includes functional validation. For example, if someone says, “it’s cold in here,” and you agree that it’s cold and turn up the heat, that is functional validation. You are acting on what is valid! Firefighters functionally validate people calling for help in fires by going to save them. If they said “Oh no! That looks really hot!” ...that wouldn’t be helpful, right?

Level Six Validation: Show Equality 

Level six validation is showing the other person as having equal status to you and being entitled to equal respect. It can be difficult to validate emotions that make no sense to you, and in those cases, you can admit that you don’t understand but want to. 

“Oh my gosh, I would feel so angry if I were in your position!”“You were really hoping that having a few drinks would make you feel better”

If you can’t understand why a person engages in an ineffective behavior, you can still recognize that the behavior was an attempt to decrease emotional pain. A validating response might look like “I can see that you are hurting,” where you validate the emotion and not the behavior.

“I know you really want me to understand this and trust me, I want to understand too! I’m just not there yet. Can you try telling me again, maybe in a different way?”

Validation can be difficult to do at first if you never learned it as a skill or think it may reinforce out of control behaviors in a loved one. In this case, it can be helpful to start with level two validation and work your way up from there. Try it out and see how it is received!

Jenell Oliver


Borderline Personality Disorder, Suicidal Ideation, Depression, Anxiety, PTSD