Validation refers to the process of communicating to another person that their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are important and they matter. Validation doesn’t mean agreeing or approving. In fact, it conveys that a relationship is important and solid – even when two parties disagree.

Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) identifies six methods of validation that a practitioner can employ with a client, ranging from validation level (VL) 1 through 6, increasing sequentially in difficulty. Although initially developed to treat patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD), these validation strategies are useful in any interpersonal context.

In brief1, the six VLs are:

  • [VL1] Being Present: Being alert and undistractedly paying attention to your partner, showing that you are fully engaged and listening to them, e.g. putting your phone away and using affirmative active listening cues as they are sharing.

  • [VL2] Accurate Reflection: Acknowledging what your partner is saying or feeling in an accurate and non-judgmental way, e.g. “You seem really flustered after that call”

  • [VL3] Mind Reading: Inferring your partner’s underlying emotions or thoughts that they may not have explicitly stated, e.g. “You must’ve felt frustrated and confused when you heard that”

  • [VL4] Understanding in Terms of Context: Acknowledging your partner’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in the context of their life experiences and current situation, e.g. “Making friends has been an uphill battle since you moved here, so it makes sense why this is really upsetting.”

  • [VL5] Normalizing: Recognizing that your partner’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are normal in a broader context, e.g. “Of course you’re feeling lonely. I bet a lot of people are struggling to form close friendships as adults, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic”

  • [VL6] Radical Genuineness: Expressing true empathy and emotion towards your partner in a way that is authentic, connecting with them as a fellow human being, e.g. “That was such a rude thing for him to say, and I get why you’re upset about this. I completely understand how you reacted… I would’ve done the same thing.”

DBT advises using the highest VL possible. Some practitioners believe that using a lower VL than what your partner is seeking can be invalidating, e.g. responding with reflection (VL2) when your partner is seeking normalization (VL2) can result in an increase in emotional disconnect.

Consider this scenario illustrating validation levels in action. Your partner is upset because his friend is refusing to return his phone calls. He says she’s behaving like a petulant child. When you ask him what her reason was, he says that he forget a coffee catch-up that they had set… for the third time. How do you validate him?

VL2 is the easiest level to reach here. For an example, you might say “I understand, you are upset because your friend is refusing to speak with you without giving you a chance to explain—-that makes you think she’s being unreasonable.” You reflect his thoughts and emotions back to him, showing that you accept those feelings (even if you don’t agree with them). You may also be able to go to VL3, for an example by saying “You must feel really hurt and sad that’s she’s turned away from you like this.” VL4 may also be possible in the right context – for an instance, you might say “You’ve been really swamped handling the aftermath of your company’s layoffs, so I get why this keeps slipping your mind.” You may not be able to use VL6 if you haven’t had a similar experience. VL5 would not work because most people would agree her response was reasonable given his repeated flakiness.

While there is no research on the efficacy of VLs in the context of romantic relationships, a 2018 study by Carson-Wong et al measured the effectiveness of these VLs in 121 DBT treatment sessions. Their findings indicated no significant relationship between overall frequency of VLs and change in client emotion. However, an increase in frequency of high VLs was associated with an increase in positive affect (PA) and a decrease in negative affect (NA) while an increase in frequency of low VLs was associated with a decrease in PA and no change in NA. Peculiarly, an increase in frequency of VL4 was associated with an increase in NA.

What can we take away from this for our own interpersonal relations? With the caveat that extending these research findings from BPD or BPD-at-risk patients to the general population is scientifically unsound, we can hypothesize that as listeners, it behooves us to use the highest possible VL that is authentic to us in any given interaction. As sharers, we can be cognizant of what VL we’re looking for – and perhaps explicitly request it from our conversation partner, should it not be immediately forthcoming.

Validation is a crucial aspect of effective relationships and the VL framework gives a more nuanced understanding of this skill, helping us understand how it may serve us – and surprisingly, how it may not.

  1. See here for a more detailed coverage of validation levels and emotional invalidation, with examples. ↩︎