an elephant and a dog are standing next to each other

#84: Validating the truth behind the words 

Bob Ewing
September 2, 2022
an elephant and a dog are standing next to each other

Talking Big Ideas.

“The most important thing in communication 
is hearing what isn’t said.”
~ Peter Drucker

This past weekend I played in a chess tournament in Albuquerque.  

My final game took more than three hours. We each played 78 moves, and I was nervous until the last one. The moment my opponent resigned I felt my anxiety transform into joy.  

I placed 4th in my class, higher than expected. The tournament director told me afterward I’d get a nice boost to my rating. That made me feel even better. I’d like to say such things don’t matter to me, but the truth is I crave status. We all do. 

A massive study of more than 60,000 people from 123 countries found that changes in perceived status were the “strongest predictor of long-term positive and negative feelings.” It concluded that “the desire for status is indeed fundamental.” 

When we believe our position in the world has gone up, even just a bit, it feels amazing. Dr. John Gottman says this is the secret to healthy relationships. 

He has studied relationships for more than four decades and is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in his field. Gottman and his team can watch a couple and predict with near-perfect accuracy whether they’ll be together several years later. 

The key is status. 

In healthy relationships, both parties regularly elevate each other’s status. Most often in little ways. For example, the other day I started telling Maryrose about something silly I saw our cat do. She looked up from her book and gave me her full attention. We chatted and laughed together. 

If Maryrose instead ignored me, or made a critical comment towards me, then I would have felt a decrease in status. Gottman says these negative moments build into contempt over time and become the number one killer of relationships.

Dale Carnegie understood these insights apply to relationships of all kinds. He began his iconic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, with two fundamental principles: 

  • #1: Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. 
  • #2: Give honest and sincere appreciation. 

Whereas criticism breeds contempt, appreciation is validating:

Validation is a simple act of helping someone feel higher status. 

We validate people when we give them our full attention. When we listen without judgment and show that we understand and care about what they are feeling. It’s not just mindlessly repeating back to someone what they tell us. 

There’s a delightful scene in the show Modern Family where the dad learns about the power of validation. Instead of trying to fix his wife’s problems, he just listens and shows that he cares about her and understands what she’s feeling. 

Pixar delivers a masterclass in validation in their movie Inside Out

Notice how Joy keeps offering invalidating responses: “hey, it’s gonna be okay . . . we can fix this! . . . here comes the tickle monster . . . .”  

Sadness, by contrast, acknowledges how Bing Bong feels: “It’s sad . . . I’m sorry . . . they took something that you loved. It’s gone forever.” And shows she’s giving her full attention: “It sounds amazing, I bet Riley liked it. . . .”

The best real-life example, and counter example, I’ve seen is this clip from the 1992 presidential debates: 

George H.W. Bush is the popular incumbent president. He’s running against a little-known Governor from a small Southern state. 

An African American woman asks a question. President Bush is the first to answer. He utterly fails to understand what she was really saying. 

The woman wanted validation. Her family and friends were hurting with the economic downturn. She mentioned the national debt but she really wanted to know: Do you understand that my community is struggling? Do you care about us? 

President Bush missed this and instead rambled in jargon about macroeconomics. Then he pivoted and asked a combative question to the woman: “Are you suggesting that if somebody has means that the national debt doesn’t affect them? I’m not sure I get it.”  

The woman reiterated that her community was struggling, but the President continued to miss her point. Instead he painfully talked about how he was at a black church and read about teen pregnancies. Then he got combative again: “I don’t think it’s fair to say you haven’t had cancer, therefore, you don’t know what it’s like.” 

Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists in history, said that most of us think we listen well “but very rarely do we listen with real understanding.”  

Bill Clinton was listening with real understanding. 

The Governor walked right up to the woman and gave her his full attention. He said, “tell me how it’s affected you again. . . you know people who’ve lost their jobs and lost their homes.”  

Her tone and facial expression immediately changed. She’d been validated and felt the rush of elevated status. Now the Governor had her full attention. He continued to connect: 

I’ve been out here for 13 months meeting . . . with people like you all over America. People that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance. . . . we have to . . . invest in American jobs . . . and bring the American people together again. 

Who do you think the woman voted for? I’m confident she joined the country in voting to kick out the combative incumbent and elect the master of validation

To validate: 

  1. Give your full attention
  2. Listen without judgment
  3. Acknowledge the person’s feelings

Will Storr writes in The Status Game

Status is a resource as real as oxygen or water . . . . It’s easy to forget we have status to give, that it costs nothing, and it never runs out. 



Give status through validation.

Practice validation on one person this weekend. During an everyday conversation, resist the urge to get distracted, offer advice, be combative, or try to top their story. Instead, try this: 

  • Give your full attention
  • Listen without judgment
  • Acknowledge their feelings

That’s it! Let me know how it goes.


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