Validation: A Key Communication Skill You Might Not Have Learned

(U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Alex Ramos)

Hopefully, as you grow your post-military career, you've heard about the importance of listening. While most people focus on what to say, how to say it and when to speak up, listening is an active, valuable part of communication to ensure you're building trust, respect and growing your skills.

You may have heard of "active listening." Communications practitioners teach that active listening is the way you hear more than just the words spoken: It's how you'll build mutual understanding by acknowledging, paraphrasing and responding to what the other person is saying (instead of simply waiting for your turn to speak).

Wayne State University in Detroit published a brief and succinct explanation of active listening skills that includes:

  • Paying attention (refrain from thinking about what you want to say and listen to what the other person is saying).
  • Demonstrate that you're listening (nodding your head in agreement, for instance, tells the other person you're considering what they're saying).
  • Offer feedback and input by rephrasing what they're telling you to demonstrate that you actually heard and understand them.
  • Respond appropriately and resist the urge to judge or negate the information that was just shared with you.

While these are great skills to learn for networking, on-the-job relationship building and interviewing, there's another communication skill that's worth mentioning to truly amplify your career and relationships: Validation.

When we validate someone's message, we go deeper than acknowledging we hear them or see that they are struggling or happy or confused. Validation means we can imagine what that might feel like, and it builds empathy and deeper relationships. When we validate someone's feelings, we acknowledge and affirm that their feelings (and therefore they) are worthy.

Validating someone's feelings -- whether you agree with them or not -- goes to the heart of human connectedness. It says, "I acknowledge you, and I'm here to help or support or listen."

This might sound trite or unnecessary, but imagine if you shared big news with a colleague and they responded with, "I hear you saying you just landed your dream job. Is that correct?" That would be a classic active listening response and might leave you confused why they didn't grasp the significance of the event.

Here's how validation might sound:

Jane: "I'm really nervous about this job interview. I'm prepared, but I'm afraid they won't like me."

Bob: "I can only imagine. You've put so much of your heart into this potential job. I'd be nervous, too."

Bob's role isn't to make things worse for Jane by giving her more to worry about. But if Bob were to tell Jane not to worry, or that there's no reason for her worry, she might feel bad about sharing those feelings with him.

The conversation could continue like this:

Jane: "Thanks, Bob. Yes, I really have poured my heart into this, and I know I'm a great fit for the job. I'm going to channel that nervousness into positive energy and show them how passionate I am for the work they're doing."

Bob: "Sounds like a great plan! How wonderful that you're able to shift your thinking to using that nervousness for something positive. You're going to crush the interview! Let me know how it works out."

Bob offered validation to Jane for what she's feeling, which allowed her to expand her thinking. Had she not felt emotionally supported, she might have shut down or become even more nervous.

While validation is critical, it won't be relevant for all situations. There will be times and places where acknowledging someone's feelings in the moment is inappropriate. For example, if your boss is sharing bad news with the team, it could come across as confrontational to dive into their feelings and encourage them to expand the sentiment. In this case, for example, following up afterward (in private) might be more appropriate.

Start practicing validation by listening to your own needs: When you share something with a colleague, your spouse, a friend or a mentor, how do they respond that makes you feel like they understood how you're feeling and acknowledge the worthiness of having that feeling?

When are they missing the mark, leaving you to feel the void? Then, practice validating other people's feelings and see the response. You might just find your relationships become more vibrant and significant -- in your personal and professional life.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication, and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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