Sadness and Bing Bong together in the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out

Validating the truth behind the words

Bob Ewing
February 2, 2024
Sadness and Bing Bong together in the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out

Talking Big Ideas.

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

We all crave status. 

massive study of more than 60,000 people from more than a hundred 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, Maryrose was reading a book when I interrupted to tell her about something silly I saw our cat do. She looked up, gave me her full attention, and we laughed together. It was a delightful moment. 

If Maryrose instead ignored me, or made a critical comment towards me, then I would have felt bad. Gottman says these little negative moments feel like decreases in status and build into contempt over time. They 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. 

Last night I was hanging out with some buddies. We laughed at how we all immediately default to trying to solve each other’s problems rather than simply listening to each other. And how our relationships with our partners would improve if we focused less on problem-solving and more on listening and validating. 

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 from the 1992 presidential debates. George H.W. Bush was the popular incumbent president. He was running against a little-known Governor from a small Southern state named Bill Clinton. 

An African American woman asks them 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. 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.”  

“Very rarely do we listen with real understanding.” 
~ Carl Rogers 

The president was not listening with real understanding. 

But Bill Clinton was. He 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. You can see how she finally feels listened to. The validation gives her a rush of elevated status. The Governor quickly secured 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

Virtually every interaction you have with other people provides an opportunity to validate: 

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

As Will Storr explains 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.  

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