How to replace suppression phrases with validation to improve communication
“You’re getting upset over nothing.” That’s what my boss told me after a particularly difficult project meeting where everything seemed to go wrong. I’m sure she meant well, but her words caused me to feel worse. All I could think was, “It wasn’t nothing to me!”
For some reason, we have been taught to tamp down, smooth over, or sugarcoat upset feelings. We think we do the right thing by saying:
- You shouldn’t feel that way.
- You’re getting upset over nothing.
- You’re over-reacting.
- Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.
- There’s no need to be frustrated.
Today, research shows what our gut already knows. These phrases don’t work. In fact, they make the situation worse. You might as well pour fuel on the fire.
Research also shows what does work. Validation. In this context, “validation” means “acknowledgment” – acknowledgment of the feelings. Validation or acknowledgment doesn’t mean you are in agreement with the situation or the feelings being expressed. It means that you acknowledge and have empathy for the situation and associated feelings. We’re human and humans have feelings.
So what does this mean to you in your workday world? It means that you, and those you communicate with, benefit as you become more comfortable reading and responding to feelings. As an engineer, we’re taught that there’s no place for feelings at work. Good luck with that! Honestly, it’s not possible to shut feelings off during the workday.
As neuroanatomist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains, “while many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures who feel, biologically we are feeling creatures who think.” Feeling creatures need to process feelings to settle down, think straight, and move on.
Instead of using phrases that suppress emotion, try validating (acknowledging) the emotion. It sounds like this:
- You sound frustrated by the lack of responsiveness. It’s hard to make progress.
- I sense that you’re worried about the outcome of the analysis.
- You seem anxious about the next steps. Tell me more.
Note that in each example, the feeling is simply acknowledged. Agreement is not implied. Often, this allows the other person to feel heard, process their feelings, and return to rational thought.
Let’s all eliminate suppression phrases from our lexicon and replace them with skilled validation. It will improve communication, reduce stress, and provide much-needed empathy at work.
Validation helps to increase productivity and enhance morale. What’s not to love about that?