Validation and empathy are often mistaken one for the other but they are not the same. Empathy is an internal process and validation is an interpersonal act. Validation can be a powerful skill in defusing arguments between partners.
Validation and empathy are often used interchangeably but they are distinct. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, perceive things as that person does and attune to what that person is feeling. Unlike empathy, validation is not just an internal process: It is something you do and express to someone else. Validating someone means making use of your empathy to orient yourself to the other person’s experience and then telling that other person that his or her behavior is understandable given what he or she is experiencing.
Validating someone can be a powerful and effective communication skill in relationships. Many arguments in relationships occur when one or both partners feel misunderstood or unseen by the other. This can lead to arguments where each partner battles the other for an acknowledgement that his or her perspective is valid. Validating the other partner can thus in one stroke take much of the energy and fight out of an argument because the partner receives what he or she was fighting for.
Note also what has been offered: an acknowledgement that the other’s person’s perspective is understandable and valid given their perspective and feelings. Validating your partner is not the same thing as agreeing with their stance or surrendering your position. An example of validation would be “I know you told me to help the kids out with their homework and you asked me to do that yesterday too, and since I didn’t help them today or yesterday, I can see that you’d think I am acting in a selfish and defiant way towards you.” That is not the same thing as agreement: “You told me to help the kids with their homework and I didn’t do it so I guess I am acting selfish and defiant.”
Validating someone in the middle of an argument is however very difficult to do: The emotionality of those situations is like being in the thick of battle where both partners feel like they are defending themselves from attacks. Under those circumstances, it may feel like a tremendous risk to validate the other’s position. If using validation in the midst of an argument seems too difficult, consider however making use of validation as part of your post fight reconciliation.