The Most Important (and Most Underrated) Relationship Skill

May 14, 2022 | Prenuptial Agreements, Relationships, Second Marriages

Can you guess what we’re talking about? We’ll give you a hint: This is a skill that everyone knows is important, but many people take for granted. It’s a skill we learn in Kindergarten, yet sometimes forget in adult situations. And, most of us have complained about people who lack this skill. Do you know what it is?

“Being listened to and heard is one of the greatest desires of the human heart. And those who learn to listen are the most loved and respected.” –Bestselling author and psychotherapist Richard Carlson (1997)

Give yourself a pat on the back if you guessed listening skills! Everyone knows that it’s important to be a good listener, yet in the situations in which we should probably be exercising this skill with extra diligence, many of us tend to do the opposite. We get worked up and tense over feeling that our needs are at risk or in contradiction to someone else’s. Our stomachs flip flop, our muscles clench, our heart rates quicken, and maybe we even begin to sweat. We then respond to these uncomfortable sensations by chattering insistently in a tactless manner about our own views, needs and opinions–without giving the other person (or people) time to express themselves. 

Or, maybe our lapses in listening are more innocuous than that–perhaps in our important relationships, we feel so comfortable that we become complacent and fail to listen as full-heartedly or attentively as we could be. Furthermore, many people have never actually been educated in the first place about what good listening skills entail, and might have some innocent but consequential blind spots. Heck, even people who have been educated extensively on listening skills probably have some blind spots. The fact is that listening skills are foundational to the success of any relationship of any kind. But, there’s more to listening than just shutting up and taking in information. 

So what exactly is that extra something that makes some people such amazing listeners? There’s a magic ingredient that all truly excellent listeners add to their interactions. 

Listening vs. being heard

How would you feel if you told your partner about that incredibly awkward and cringeworthy situation with your colleague, and you could tell they were definitely listening the whole time you were talking (in a rather animated fashion)…but then they responded with a quick and rather monotone “oh, that sucks” and nothing more? He or heard what you said, looked at you while you were talking, and didn’t interrupt. Yet, you still didn’t walk away feeling truly heard because their reaction didn’t match the tone of your feelings. To listen well, it is essential not only to understand, acknowledge and respond to what the other person said, but also to make them feel heard by validating their experience (Carlson, 1997). That’s the magic ingredient: validation. 

Validation entails sharing in the other person’s emotional experience (Carlson, 1997). In the situation above, validation could have involved asking follow-up questions and/or reacting with more emotion. It could even have involved using some of the same words –“oh, that sucks”–but in a more emphatic or enthusiastic tone of voice, perhaps involving body language cues such as gestures like a facepalm or facial cues like widening the eyes. But, the most validating reactions involve two particular components:

1. Acknowledging  a specific emotion
2. Offering justification for that emotion (Carlson, 1997).

Let’s say Peter and Myra are eating dinner together, and Myra excitedly tells Peter about how she finally finished a really difficult 5.11 route in the climbing gym the other day. Peter listens as she describes how she found a way past the crux of the route and just barely managed to wrap both her hands around the finishing hold for a couple of seconds before her arms gave out. When she finishes, he answers in an enthusiastic tone of voice and exclaims “Damn, good for you, how satisfying! I know you’ve been working on that route for the past few weeks!” Peter identified a specific emotion inherent in the story (satisfaction) and then justified the feeling by acknowledging Myra’s efforts to achieve her goal. Myra grins from ear to ear and beams, enjoying the experience of validation as much as the climbing gym victory itself.

Accidental Invalidation

We often respond in an invalidating way even when our intention is to do the opposite. To avoid invalidating the other person, steer clear of any response that seeks to convey that your interlocutor ‘shouldn’t’ feel a certain way. This includes responses like “don’t worry”, “don’t cry”, and “you’ll be fine”. Responses like these may be meant as reassurance, but they’re experienced as being told that what one is feeling is not valid (Carlson, 1997).  

Rushing to give advice too quickly can also be invalidating. If your partner comes to you to talk about a difficult situation with which they’re struggling, try taking a moment to validate their experience before you offer advice. Your advice is more likely to be taken seriously after the other person has felt validated because you’ve built trust and connection by showing that you’re truly there with them. (You might also find that your advice changes or becomes less simple or clear-cut after you put yourself in their shoes). And in some situations, your partner might be looking exclusively for validation, without advice. Even if your partner or anyone else explicitly asks you for advice, there’s a good chance they’d appreciate a little bit of validation before you launch into solution mode, even if they don’t ask for it (Carlson, 1997). A lot of times, people don’t realize that what they’re truly seeking is validation, and offering it can never hurt. 

Let’s take a look at a conversation between a couple. As you read, ask yourself whether partner A is receiving validation from partner B or not.

Partner A: Guess what? Mark moved the opening date of the bakery again. Now that I’ve quit my job at the cafe, I’m really relying on him for work and originally we were supposed to start last week!

Partner B: Well, does Mark know that you already quit your other job?

Partner A: Yes, he knows. Man, what am I going to do if he pushes it back even more?!

Partner B: Maybe you should start looking for another job. Maybe a temp job, just until Mark is really ready?

Partner A: No, that won’t fit, the process might take some time and I might have to quit really suddenly…I just wish Mark could have communicated more clearly if the opening date wasn’t really set in stone in the first place!

Partner B: Well, I guess you’ll have to either live off your savings for a little while or get a new job and forget about the bakery. But I’m sure it will work out in the end.

Partner A: Whatever, I’ll figure it out.

In this exchange, partner’s A and B were talking past each other. They both understood the purpose of the conversation completely differently. Partner A wanted to unload their frustration, feel seen, and receive validation of their struggle, whereas partner B thought their role was to help partner A solve a problem. Partner B walked away feeling confused and unsure of how to help, and partner A walked away feeling alone and possibly even more stressed out than at the outset of the conversation. Next time, B should shift gears into validation mode before offering solutions. They might even explicitly ask A whether they’re even looking for solutions at that moment.

Although the example above showed the need for validation of a negative experience, validating positive experiences is just as important and beneficial for relationships (Carlson, 1997). 

To be heard, hear

All too often when we feel that we are not being heard, we get all riled up and try even harder to make ourselves heard. Although understandable, this response is unlikely to lead to being heard. Instead, try stepping back and listening to and validating what the other person is saying in a situation like this. When people feel heard, a sense of safety is created and their nervous systems calm down. Then they are far more likely to be open to hearing another person–especially the person who has just validated them. We know it sounds counterintuitive, but give this a try. You just might be surprised. 

Validation is particularly important when we’re in conflict…and what’s more, validation need not involve agreeing with someone when we actually disagree. It is entirely possible to validate someone’s perspective and experience without agreeing with them. Here’s an example. The couple below often disagree about when their son should be allowed leisure time with his friends. Partner A considers their son doing well in school to be top priority. Partner B is concerned that their son is having trouble making friends after moving to a new city, and therefore encourages him to go out and play with other kids whenever the opportunity arises.

Partner A: Why did you tell Marvin to go out and play with the neighbors?! He’s not done with his homework yet, and you know he has a math test tomorrow!

Partner B: You know what? I can see why you’re concerned. It’s important that Marvin stays on top of his schoolwork, especially since his grades this year will determine if we can get him into private school next year. I let him go play because making friends and socializing are such an important part of his development, and I’m concerned because he hasn’t made any strong friendships here yet. I will see to it that Marvin does his homework later, after he’s done playing. Ok? 

In this exchange, we can see that partner B validated partner A by affirming their concern (Marvin needs to do well in school) even though B didn’t agree with A about how their son’s day should be organized. B managed to validate A without conceding or changing their opinion. It may also happen sometimes that by cultivating the empathy needed to validate another person’s experience, one becomes more sympathetic to their view and more willing to make compromises. And that’s a good thing!

Validation doesn’t always end an argument, but it does lower tensions and increase feelings of connection and understanding. 

Listening Skills and Your Prenuptial Agreement

Discussing your prenup is an ideal (and crucial) time to practice your listening and validation skills. You may need to discuss some sensitive topics, and making sure to validate one another’s views will help to establish safety in the discussion, ultimately leading to a more comprehensive and satisfactory agreement with which you’re both happy. It’s possible that you and your partner are going to disagree on some of the clauses initially, which means you’ll have ample opportunity to practice validating without necessarily agreeing, the empathy you cultivate in doing so will probably help lead you towards an agreement you feel good about. Navigating the prenup process with good listening and validation skills as a backdrop is an excellent way to set the tone for good communication during your marriage. 

References

Carlson, R. 1997. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life. Hachette Books: New York. 

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