Acknowledging and validating

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Note that what's on this page applies to interacting with people in general, even though it was written in the context of parenting.

Not denying feelings is something I'm working on with how I talk to myself as well as to other people. For example, with my self-talk, I often find myself telling myself I shouldn't have certain feelings or trying to talk myself out of having certain feelings, and I've been working on noticing when I'm doing this and trying not to deny my feelings in this way. I've found the following excerpts helpful with this.

Acknowledging and validating by communicating assertively

We get a lot of messages about how we should and shouldn't feel. But, it seems to me that, no matter what, we can always at least acknowledge everyone's feelings. No matter why the feelings are there or whether or not they make sense, I can always validate that it's okay to have the feeling.

I was first introduced to the idea of acknowledging what's going on for people by reading the book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. It's a book about helping people who have a hard time asserting what they do and don't want. This is true of me; and, in the context of dealing with kids, I am totally prone to letting them run all over me. I was drawn to this book because it's easy for me to be passive, especially when dealing with people who are being aggressive, and because I wanted to learn how to be assertive instead.

Here's how I use these terms:

  • Passive - giving others what they want regardless of what I'm wanting and feeling
  • Aggressive - getting what I want regardless of what others are wanting and feeling
  • Assertive - everyone's wants and feelings are taken into account and validated

Acknowledging wants and feelings is what I'm focusing on for this wikipage. Acknowledging feelings is something that shows up a lot in When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. But, taking into account what the other person wants is not something that the author emphasizes, perhaps because this book is mainly written in terms of how to communicate assertively when faced with people who are being aggressive. So, in the following excerpts, I find there is undue emphasis placed on getting the kids to do what the parent wants and not enough taking into account what the kid wants (because, in the examples, the author is casting the kid as tending to be aggressive and showing how the parent can communicate assertively).

Acknowledging and validating whatever the other person is saying, no matter how offensive it might be, is the focus of When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. The book teaches you how to do so in a way that allows you to "remain your own judge of what you do," "stick to your desired point," "give no reward to those using manipulative criticism," and "prompt your critic to be more assertive, less dependent on manipulative ploys."

I don't like how the author uses terms like "manipulative" in the following excerpts. Not taking ownership by implying that there's something wrong with the other person, for example, is nonassertive. But, is it really manipulative? I wouldn't cast it that way. I can see that the author's exaggerated characterization of nonassertiveness makes his examples more vivid, and perhaps this helps him convey the ideas more effectively. But, I worry about how it could unnecessarily rub people the wrong way. Earlier in the chapter, he softens all this a bit by saying that we do these things not because we're uncaring or insensitive to what other people want, but because that's just what we grew up with. So, instead of casting some ways of talking as "manipulative," I prefer the following framing: Nonassertive ways of talking are the norm. There are alternative assertive ways that often work better, but most people just don't know about them.

Despite these things I wish the author would've done differently, I really appreciate how the following excerpts show the differences between assertive and nonassertive ways of talking, especially in terms of what messages they can convey to people.


In the excerpts on this page, I've highlighted some key parts in bold, and I've added in some of my own thoughts in dark blue.

Framing things in terms of wants vs. judgments (e.g., good, bad, right, wrong)

From pages 13 - 17 of When I Say No, I Feel Guilty

... [Parents often] teach us ideas and beliefs about ourselves and the ways people behave that produce feelings of anxiety, ignorance, and guilt. For example, place yourself in the shoes of a young child, your own child perhaps, or yourself when you were young, and look at the training you undergo. When you clean up your room and put all the toys away, Mom usually says things like: “That’s a good boy.” When she doesn’t like the job you do—if you do it at all—she usually says things that sound like: “What kind of kid are you? Only naughty children don’t clean up their room!” You soon learn that “naughty,” whatever that means, applies to you. Whenever it is used, Mom’s voice and mood tell you that something scary and unpleasant may happen to you. She also uses words like bad, terrible, awful, dirty, willful, unmanageable, and maybe even words like wicked or evil, but they all describe the same thing: You! What you are: small, helpless, and not knowing much. And what you “should” feel: dumb, nervous, perhaps frightened, and certainly guilty!

In training you to attach emotionally loaded ideas like good and bad to your minor actions, Mom is denying that she has any responsibility for making you do what she wants, like cleaning up your room. The effect upon you as a small child of using such loaded ideas as good, bad, right, and wrong to control what you do is the same as if Mom had said: “Don’t make that sour face at me. It’s not me who wants you to clean up your room. God wants you to clean up your room!” By using good-bad statements to control your behavior, Mom shifts the responsibility off her shoulders for making you do something. With external statements like right and wrong that have nothing to do with your interaction with her, she blames your discomfort at doing what she wants onto some external authority that made up all the rules we “should” obey.

This is nonassertiveness. This way of controlling behavior, i.e., “That’s a good-bad boy,” is very efficient, but it is manipulative, under-the-table control and not an honest interaction in which Mom would assertively, on her own authority, tell you what she wants you to do, and stick to it. Instead of asserting her wants to an assertive young child until he responds to her wishes (and he will), Mom finds it easier to make you struggle through bad and good with God, the government, the sanitation and safety department the old man with the white beard, the police chief, or whoever else you childishly perceive as the one who decides what is good and what is bad. Mom rarely tells you: “Thank you. I like it very much when you clean up your room,” or even “It must really bug you when I make you do your room over, but that’s exactly what I want you to do.” With statements like these, Mom teaches you that whatever Mom wants is important simply because she wants it. And that is the truth. She teaches you that nobody else is checking up on you but her. And that too is the truth. You are not led into feeling anxious or guilty or unloved because you don’t like what Mom wants. You are not taught that what Mom likes is good and what she dislikes is bad. If she uses simple assertive statements of “I want,” there are no implications or unspoken threats that “good” children are loved and “bad” ones are not. You don’t even have to like what Mom wants you to do; you only have to do it!

What a happy situation: being able to bitch and grumble to Mom and Dad to get things off your chest and know they still love you. Using psychological guilt to manipulate your behavior, on the other hand, is the same thing as teaching you that you have to like the taste of aspirin before it will cure your headache. Thankfully, when parents assertively assume themselves to be the authority on what their child can and cannot do, they then teach the assertive concept that when you grow up, not only can you do what you want, just like Mom and Dad, but you will also have to do some things you don’t care for so that you can do other things you do want, just like Mom and Dad.

One key piece of communicating assertively is taking ownership of your wants rather than framing what you say in terms of abstract rules and judgments, as was discussed in the preceding excerpt. If you aren't taking ownership of your wants, some common invalidating messages that you may be implicitly sending to people include:

  • that they shouldn't be feeling the way they're feeling
  • that what they want isn't reasonable
  • that you are blaming them for how you are feeling

Children unfortunately are taught to respond to psychological control of their learned emotions of anxiety, ignorance, and guilt in many childhood situations. For example, if you are playing with your dog in the living room and Mom wants to take a nap on the couch, she teaches you to respond to manipulative emotional control by saying: “Why are you always playing with Rover.” You then must come up with an answer as to why you are always playing in the living room with Rover. Not knowing any reason why except the fact that you like to and it is fun, you feel ignorant, because if Mom asks for a reason, there must be one. She wouldn’t ask for something that didn’t exist, would she? If you honestly but sheepishly reply: “I don’t know,” Mom counters with: “Why don’t you go play in your sister’s room with her?” Lacking a “good” reason why you prefer to play with the dog than with your sister, you are again induced to feel ignorant for not knowing why. Searching awkwardly for a reason, your mumbled reply is cut off by Mom: “It seems like you never want to play with your sister. She wants to play with you.” Feeling guilty as hell by now, you remain silent as Mom delivers the coup de grace: “If you never want to play with your sister, she won’t like you and want to play with you.” Now feeling not only ignorant and guilty but also anxious about what your sister might think of your attitude, you depart with Rover on your heels to take up your rightful station in life beside Sis and out of Mom’s hearing.

Ironically, all the tortuous finagling Mom goes through to convince you that you “should” like to play with Sis is more harmful to your natural assertive initiative than if she showed you her down-to-earth, obviously human grouchiness and said: “Get the hell out of the living room while I’m trying to sleep and take that mangy mutt with you!” Even with statements like this, she is exposing you to the hard realities of living with other humans. Sometimes the people you love and care for are going to treat you rottenly, because they are human. They can love and care for you and still get angry with you. Living with people is never just peachy all the time, so with occasional episodes of anger, tempered by everyday love, Mom prepares you emotionally to cope with this human paradox.

I really appreciate how this example drives home for me that of course I'm going to be human, and that it's not about being a saint or having it all together.

Framing things in terms of wants vs. rules

From pages 18 - 20 of When I Say No, I Feel Guilty

… Mom implies that she’s only following some complex set of rules [about how people “should” feel and behave toward each other] which she didn’t make up and which you don’t fully understand yet (You, incidentally, will later also use these rules, but never fully understand them, since each of us, like Mom, improvises our own details of the rules as we go along, selectively uses the rules when it suits us and conveniently ignores them when that serves our purpose.) Faced with this formidable verbal tangle, you find it easier to retreat to the yard for a long session of grumbling and passively dragging your rake. Not only does Mom’s manipulative control of your emotions and behavior train you further in the arbitrary use of ideas like right and wrong, or fairness, but with the same words, Mom is conditioning you to think according to vague general rules that “should” be followed.

The flaw in this conditioning process is that these abstract rules are so general they can be interpreted in any way desired, in the same circumstances. These rules are external to your own judgment of what you like and dislike. They tell how people “should” feel and behave toward each other…

Mom does have the more promising option, however, of dealing assertively with manipulative statements from her children. More hopefully she uses verbal assertion in her response, and in doing so, she neither punishes nor countermanipulates her child. [An excerpt that came earlier in this chapter provides the context for the rest of the paragraph. I've included this excerpt below this paragraph and indented it to make it easy to spot.] In coping with your criticism of her job assignments, for example, she can assertively and empathically respond with: “I can see that you feel it’s unfair that you do the yard while your sister is playing. That must upset you, but I still want you to rake the yard now.” By her assertive response in the unpleasant job of coping with your manipulation, Mom is telling you a lot of emotionally supportive and reassuring things. She tells you that even though you are going to do something you don’t like, you are entitled to feel the way you do and she’s not insensitive to you; despite the way you see your ordered, fair world crumbling, things are still going the way Mom wants them, and most reassuring of all, disaster is not lurking around the next turn because Mom is smart enough not to be “conned” by ... you or your sister.

Your own early manipulations, for example, sound like: “Mommy, how come Sis always sits in her room playing when I have to clean up the yard?” critically suggesting that Mom is playing favorites. At this young age, you haven’t yet learned enough about manipulation to be a match for Mom. … But in the meantime, your first manipulative attempts are quite sufficient to make Mom feel defensive and protective of herself. Your criticism implies that she is not being fair or sticking to the external rules she taught you.

Framing things in terms of what we each want and how we can all get along

When there's a conflict, I find that what the conflict is really about can easily get obscured. Something that helps me avoid this is talking in terms of what each person wants.

Framing the conflict as being about how we can all get along (which might be clearest in the context of conflicts that involve the stresses of living together) seems especially key. Otherwise, judgments and rules can easily take center stage. Here are some examples to give you an idea of what I mean:

There's something wrong with you is how things are being cast. Here's an alternative way to cast the situation. What you want is conflicting with what I want in this situation. Given that we have different priorities and preferences underlying what we want, how do we figure out how to get along.

When these differences are taken as a given and each person takes ownership of their wants and feelings, it can be easier to figure out how we can all get along without having a discussion that gets so emotionally charged.

When these differences are not taken as a given is when you end up with the use of everyone and no one to argue about what's most reasonable (as if everyone could agree on that). Everyone would obviously side with me, and no one would think that what you want and feel is reasonable. At least most normal people would agree with me, if not everyone. No one is as strange as you. Or, if they are, they are in a way that's unacceptable to most people.

Using everyone and no one is one way of not taking ownership. Sometimes, using logical reasons, such as what would save more time or money, can also lead to not taking ownership and to lack of clarity about what each person wants. Here's an example from this morning:

Peter and I were talking about stopping at a pharmacy on the way to the gym, but there wasn't a clear choice of route planning as to which pharmacy to go to. I suggested to Peter that while we're at it we could combine going to a pharmacy with going to The Little Seedling (a kids' store near a pharmacy). He wasn't wild about the idea, so I said "But it only takes 5 minutes to get to The Little Seedling." Peter responded by saying "Yeah, but it's 5 minutes in the wrong direction." I realized that this was a nice example of arguing in terms of what was more efficient in terms of time or distance instead of what we wanted.
So, what did we each want in this case. What Peter wanted is quite straightforward. He didn't want to spend a lot of time running errands before going to the gym; and he knows that, although I might think I can just pop into The Little Seedling quickly, I tend to spend more time there than I intend to. For me, I had to think a bit about what it was I wanted. There were several things. But the one that was influencing me the most was that I wanted to make sure I had enough time for writing in the morning. I won't bother with explaining exactly how this affected the logistics. But it's probably helpful to say that it involved wanting to be able to cross getting things from The Little Seedling off my to-do list without cutting into my morning writing time.
I could have continued to argue in terms of how long it would take or how far out of our way we were going. But that wouldn't have made it clear to me or to Peter what it was that I wanted.

Arguing about logical reasons is one way to get into trouble, arguing about specific outcomes/positions is another. A classic example of this involves two people arguing about how wide to open a window. A third person comes along and helps them shift from arguing about positions to finding out what they each want, which enables them to find a win-win solution. Click here to see the example.

The outcome-oriented way that I think conflict resolution usually goes is something like whoever can get everyone to go along with their idea wins. This is often done by talking about what makes the most sense. (Note: I'm definitely not saying that there's no place for discussing what makes sense, but it seems to me that having clarity about what the underlying wants are is key to having it go better.) But, for example, even if it doesn't make sense to Peter why I want what I want, I find it makes a huge difference to me if he acknowledges that that's what I want and to validate that it's okay for me to want it. Acknowledging doesn't require agreeing. Even if you think that what someone is saying is totally false, you can still acknowledge that it seems to be true for them.

In general, I'm finding it helpful to be less outcome-oriented and more process-oriented. (For example, with writing, I'm taking more care with how I go about writing, and I'm not getting as caught up with worrying about how the piece of writing is going to turn out in the end.) With discussing conflicts, the question that helps me be more process-oriented is: How can we go about this such that everyone feels like they matter and that what's important to them matters? In the end, some people might not be as wild about the outcomes/decisions as others, but no matter what we can always at least acknowledge and validate everyone's wants and feelings.

Denying feelings leads to not knowing what our feelings are and not trusting them

What follows is a short version of excerpts from Chapter 1 of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. Click here for a longer version of these excerpts.

I was a wonderful parent before I had children. I was an expert on why everyone else was having problems with theirs. Then I had three of my own.

... though it was the last thing I ever dreamed I’d be doing, I joined a parent group. The group met at a local child-guidance center and was led by a young psychologist, Dr. Haim Ginott.

The meeting was intriguing. The subject was “children’s feelings,” and the two hours sped by. I came home with a head spinning with new thoughts and a notebook full of undigested ideas:

Problem—Parents don’t usually accept their children’s feelings. For example:
“You don’t really feel that way.” “You’re just saying that because you’re tired.” “There’s no reason to be so upset.”
Steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids. Also teaches them not to know what their feelings are—not to trust them.

After the session I remember thinking, “Maybe other parents do that. I don’t.” Then I started listening to myself. Here are some sample conversations from my home—just from a single day.

CHILD: Mommy, I’m tired.
ME: You couldn’t be tired. You just napped.
CHILD: (louder) But I’m tired.
ME: You’re not tired. You’re just a little sleepy. Let’s get dressed.

... the language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It’s not part of our “mother tongue.” Most of us grew up having our feelings denied. To become fluent in this new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods. Here are some ways to help children deal with their feelings. ...

  • Acknowledge their feelings with a word ... Or just with a head nod. I think this is just about making it clear that you heard what they said, for example, by responding with “Oh” “Mmm” or “I see.” I think they're just pointing out that it doesn't take much to do that.
  • Give their feelings a name.
  • Give them their wishes in fantasy. The examples of this in the book involve saying what you wish could be true. Another way to do this, that I discovered works well with my 2-year old Joel, is pantomiming doing something instead of actually doing it. I made this discovery one day when the snow that we were making snowmen with in the morning had all melted away before the day was done. But, Joel was still talking about making snowmen. So, I pantomimed making one, which we then did over and over again because he found it so engaging. This opened up a whole new world of possibilities for us, and I've been happily surprised at just how frequently Joel finds pantomiming to be a satisfying alternative to actually getting to do something. It's definitely made my life a lot easier. It even satisfies his desire to look at things on my computer. I just make a laptop out of my hands (one for the screen, and one for the keyboard), and I point out imaginary pictures of things that he likes to see.


... perhaps the most difficult is to have to listen to a child’s emotional outpourings and then “give a name to the feeling.” It takes practice and concentration to be able to look into and beyond what a child says in order to identify what he or she might be feeling. Yet it’s important that we give our children a vocabulary for their inner reality. Once they have the words for what they’re experiencing, they can begin to help themselves.

For most of us it doesn’t come naturally to say things like: “Boy, you sound angry!” or “That must have been a disappointment for you,” or “Hmm. You seem to be having some doubts about going to that party,” or “Sounds as if you really resent all that homework,” or “Oh, that must have been so frustrating!” or “To have a dear friend move away can be pretty upsetting.” And yet it’s statements like these that give children comfort and free them to begin to deal with their problems. ...

The many comic strips in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk are especially helpful. They make it so you can easily pop in and get the gist of what the authors are saying. It's just so much quicker to look at lots of examples in comic strip form than to read a bunch of text.

Easy for me to implement because of default ways of talking

On this wikipage, my own thoughts are in dark blue, and excerpts from books and blogposts are in black.

Acknowledging and validating what's going on for kids is something I find easy to do. Basically, the messages I'm trying to convey are

  • It's okay to feel that way.
  • It's okay to want that.

This section is about ways of acknowledging and validating that I learned from the book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. [The 3 bullet points in the section above provide ways of doing this from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, and the section after this one gives examples for a default way of talking called "sportscasting" from Your Self-Confident Baby (Magda Gerber's RIE Approach).]

Reading When I Say No, I Feel Guilty helped me come up with some stock phrases that made a big difference to me. They gave me a way to interact with kids without having them totally run over me. I came up with these stock phrases when I was volunteering with Time for Tots doing daycare for homeless kids. I signed up for this back when I was in grad school because I wanted to see if it was possible for me to not be such a pushover with kids. Here are a couple of examples of the default ways of talking I used in that context:

  • "I know you X, but I am Y."
    • For example, I know you want to play with the broom, but I am taking it away, because I don't want anyone to get hurt.
    • The "sportscasting" examples below that start with "You want" or "You wanted" follow this same pattern, except that they don't have the "I know" part (because they are examples of talking to toddlers).
  • "You might be right."
    • This phrase acknowledges the probability that there may be some truth in what the other person is saying, yet allows you to assert what's going on for you.
    • For example, "You might be right. What I'm doing might be unfair, but that's what I'm doing right now because I'm busy trying to keep everyone safe."

Because I find it so hard to think of what to say in the heat of the moment, I was really struck by how well I could rely on these stock phrases when I needed to jump in and intervene.

When I Say No, I Feel Guilty is filled with default ways of talking. Here is an example of a dialogue from the book, and here is a subset of the glossary items for these default ways of talking.

Your Self-Confident Baby provided me with default ways of interacting with kids that I found very reassuring, like the "sportscasting" way of talking that is described below.

Acknowledging and validating what's going on for kids is something I've found to be easier for me to implement than most of the parenting ideas I've read about. Since Joel's still very young, it can be as easy as repeating back what he said, or even just the last word that he said. Collecting together the ideas on this wikipage and working through writing up what they've done for me has made these ideas much clearer for me. It's made me feel less daunted by the challenges that will come as he grows older.


What is sportscasting?


“Sportscasting” is the term Magda Gerber [the author of the book Your Self-Confident Baby] used to describe the helpful, non-judgmental account adults are advised to give of their children’s play-by-play. “Ruby, you wanted that. Now George has it. Ruby took it back.” It is especially reassuring for a child to be acknowledged when he is upset — it seems to help him process the feelings and move on. “Sally brushed by you and it bothered you. I saw that. You’re upset.”

Examples of sportscasting and how sportscasting acknowledges and validates

This excerpt from includes a lot of nice examples of sportscasting in its discussion of acknowledging and validating.

Acknowledging an infant or toddler’s point-of-view can be magically calming, because it provides something he desperately needs – the feeling of being understood. A simple affirmation of our child’s struggles, “You are having a hard time getting those shoes on. You’re really working hard,” can give him the encouragement he needs to persevere through his frustration.

Be careful not to assume a child’s feeling, “You’re afraid of the dog”, or to invalidate the child’s response because we view it as overreaction, “It’s just a doggie. He won’t hurt you.” It is safest to state only what we know for certain, “You seem upset by the dog. Do you want me to pick you up?”

Acknowledging first can take the bite out of not getting one’s way. “You want to play longer outside, but now it’s time to come in. I know it’s hard to come in when you’re not ready.” And no matter how wrong or ridiculous our child’s point-of-view might seem to us, he needs the validation of our understanding.

Acknowledging our child’s desires means expressing truths we might rather ignore like, “You wanted to run across the street. I won’t let you.” Or, “You want to leave Grandma’s house, but it isn’t time yet. “

It’s always hardest to remember to acknowledge a child in the heat of a difficult moment, but if a child can hear anything during a temper tantrum, it reassures him to hear our recognition of his point-of-view. “You wanted an ice cream cone and I said, ‘No’. It’s upsetting not to get what you want.”

When a toddler feels understood, he senses the empathy behind our limits and corrections. He still resists, cries and complains, but at the end of the day, he knows we are with him, always in his corner.