Using Validation to be Assertive with Difficult People


Few things are more frustrating or anxiety provoking than having to deal with someone who is, how should I put this, a tough customer. People who are more emotionally reactive can be set off at the slightest turn of phrase despite our best efforts to be sensitive or avoid conflict. Having to deal with these kinds of people on a regular basis can be exhausting, and over time we are often totally burned out on them to the point that we no longer have any desire to maintain any kind of relationship with them. 

Validation is a skill Marsha Linehan developed (1993) to help her work with psychotherapy patients who had emotional reactivity problems. Dr. Linehan found that traditional therapy techniques were not effective with people who had hair-triggers. She determined that only by using a healthy dose of validation could her patients be receptive to cognitive behavioral therapy. Moreover, Dr. Linehan found that by relying on validation skills she could be very direct with her patients, not feeling the need to tiptoe around sensitive topics or walk on eggshells. 

Validation is ultimately about helping communicate some level of understanding of what the other person is thinking or feeling. It is not necessarily about agreement, but more about acknowledging and legitimizing at least a kernel of truth in someone’s experience. Feeling understood often has the result of reducing emotional intensity and increasing psychological flexibility. If you think of conflicts as a kind of tug of war, usually the harder you pull causes the other person to redouble her efforts and pull harder herself. Rather than escalate to conflict, validation is a bit like dropping the rope and getting on the side of the other person. All of a sudden there is no reason for her to continue pulling because you’re on the same side. That is how validation works. 

Validation can be helpful in numerous ways (Hoffman et al., 2005). It can help to defuse anger in someone with a short fuse. Similarly, it is helpful in quickly resolving conflicts and building trust. Most importantly, it makes problem solving and assertiveness possible with people who are ordinarily intransigent. 

Following is a list of different ways to validate:

  • Be present: Pay attention, nod, use eye contact. Show you are listening. 
  • Reflect feelings: Identify her feelings, describing them without judgment. If you can, allow yourself to feel a little of the feeling yourself and communicate it with your tone of voice. 
  • Restate the position: Summarize the other person’s perspective without judgment. Ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the position, and also to signal you care about understanding.
  • Normalize the other person’s thoughts and feelings: Identify how her reaction makes sense given past experience or the present context. The basic underlying meaning of this kind of validation should be “Of course!”
  • Match vulnerability with vulnerability: If she is being vulnerable, self-disclose your own vulnerability. The subtext with this kind of validation is “Me too!”

Using these ways of dropping the rope in the interpersonal tug of war can reduce the other person’s emotionality or rigidness, and help you get your point across. You may just find that interactions with this person become less difficult or even... rewarding. If you’re (understandably) skittish and don’t want to test it out, throughout the day notice when other people validate you. Observe how you respond. Wouldn’t it be nice if that tough customer responded the same way?

Click here for more information about how cognitive behavioral therapy might be helpful for you or someone you know. 

Hoffman, P.D. et al. (2005). Family connections: A program for relatives of persons with borderline personality disorder. Family Process, 44, 2, 217-225.
Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford. 

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