Holding Space – Strengthening Trust Through Validation

By Julia Suklevski, LMSW

Throughout our relationships – familial and professional, casual and romantic – we find ourselves in the ebb and flow of effectively communicating to our partners through words, actions, and expression of emotion. Fostering both verbal and nonverbal interactions can strengthen the dynamics of the relationship, and leave both individuals feeling understood, listened to, and acknowledged. Practicing compassion and having a nonjudgmental approach when allowing the other individual to reveal what is causing them distress, what is overwhelming them, or what has made then feel minimized or unseen can truly change the distressed individual’s entire experience, and elicit positive emotions and trust.

When the bond between two individuals is secure, we feel comfortable to share our vulnerabilities, to freely described our challenges, and in turn, anticipate that the recipient of the shared experience will be able to reciprocate by validation.

Within the treatment modality of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), validation is one of the fundamental ways in which those participating in the treatment can understand and communicate that whatever the distressed individual is experiencing emotionally, cognitively, or behaviorally makes sense given the context and circumstances of the environment that is causing the person to feel acknowledged. Practicing validation can help the person feel acknowledged, that someone understands that they are struggling, and in turn, can encourage the person to take action to take more effective action steps to decrease their emotional arousal, practice coping skills, or practice ways to problem solve for an outcome that will bring them from a state of discomfort and unease to a state of contentment.  

How does one practice validation? 

Validation is certainly not a foreign concept. Chances are, you’ve been practicing the art of validation your entire life, consciously and unconsciously, and it is reinforced by the positive and beneficial outcomes you experience. When you validate someone when they approach you during a moment on distress, or when they are feeling unsure, doubtful, or otherwise discontent with present circumstances, there may be an immediate change in the person’s verbal and nonverbal communication that makes you more self-aware of your role in changing their emotional stability. 

Here are six ways you can validate others using a DBT framework:

1. “Staying Awake”

It sounds simple, but simply showing that you are paying attention to the other person, that their time is valuable because you are actively listening and responding through verbal and nonverbal cues, is the foundational level of validation. Ever experience a circumstance in which you are sharing your entire heart with someone – a friend, a partner, parent or child – and you recognize that they are looking away, fidgeting, or have closed their eyes? That can make anyone feel that in the moment, they are not a priority. Stay awake and be fully present to foster validation. Ask open-ended questions, maintain eye contact, and show you are listening with full awareness. 

2. “Accurate Reflection”

When someone has exhausted their mental and emotional capacity when sharing what is making them feel vulnerable, uneasy, or eliciting an intense emotional response, the last thing they want to do is to have to repeat their entire story, or feel that they have to reiterate the essence of what they shared. Demonstrate that you have been an active listener, and summarize what the other person shared. Use a nonjudgmental approach when reflecting back the individual’s emotions, thoughts, and behavioral responses. Help the other person check the facts about what is causing them distress, and accurately reflect back to the person what the reality of the circumstances are that may be causing them to feel the way they do. 

3. “Mind Reading”

Sometimes when someone is experiencing such emotional distress, they may appear guarded, withdrawn, or distracted. It is helpful that when one cannot verbalize their emotions, you still validate what they may be experiencing by reading their body language, examining their behaviors, imagining what they could thinking or feeling, and placing yourself in their shoes. This allows the person to feel as though they are being acknowledged in a moment of distress, that you as the person providing the validation have a genuine interest in the person’s well-being, and it can help that person feel more comfortable in sharing. When someone feels that they do not have to broadcast what they are feeling internally, but the other person is able to accurately capture why someone is feeling distressed about the life circumstances, it helps strengthen and maintain a sense of trust. 

4. “Validation of the Present by Acknowledging the Past”

When one experiences distress, it is often in the context of a situation that they might have experienced before, or find themselves entering time and time again. It is important to acknowledge that one’s response makes sense given such circumstances because they have gone through it before. Bring attention to this parallel between their past responses and how they are feeling in the present moment. Use statements such as “I can see why you may be ____, given that you have gone through ____ before,” or “Since you were feeling ____ before when faced with a similar scenario, I totally get why you are feeling ____ again.”

5. “Validation of Present by Acknowledging the Present”

When someone is experiencing distress, they might engage in a behavior that makes sense given the present context. For example, someone taking a major exam, receiving very important news, or is experiencing interpersonal conflict that they do not know the resolution of might be extremely worried, anxious, or withdrawn. Normalize someone’s emotions and communicate that their behavior or response is reasonable and justified. Statements such as “It makes sense why you would be feeling _____ when you are dealing with ____ today,” or “It sounds like you are trying really hard to process the emotion of ____ when you were faced with ____ right now” are validating of the here and now, and help the other person feel less alone in the moment. 

6. “Validate the Person Holistically”

What comes to mind when I think of the highest level of validation is this infamous quote by the late Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” 

Treat the other person with respect, dignity, and radical genuineness. Acknowledge where they are, and meet them there – without judgment, without coming across as minimizing or patronizing. Be with the person 100%, and commit to supporting them during their time of need. This strengthens your relationship with them. 

Julia Suklevski is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing reception@cobbpsychotherapy.com, and see how therapy can help.

Sarah Spitz