In these uncertain times, validation is the best way to support loved ones

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated that we all focus a bit more on our physical health, but the psychological impact of everything that’s been happening is heavy as well. We’re all feeling a bit more anxious and nervous these days, and it’s more important than ever to support the people in our lives. 

Offering truly effective comforting words or support can be a tricky task at any time, but mix in a global pandemic, and suddenly everything feels more complicated. If you’re not quite sure how to go about consoling a family member or friend, a new study just released by Penn State has some words of scientific research-backed wisdom. Above all else, validate their feelings and make them feel heard. 

Words of validation were found to be much more effective than efforts to change an individual’s mind regarding a situation or discredit their feelings.

“One recommendation is for people to avoid using language that conveys control or uses arguments without sound justification,” explains Xi Tian, a graduate assistant in communication arts and sciences, in a press release. “For example, instead of telling a distressed person how to feel, like ‘don’t take it so hard’ or ‘don’t think about it,’ you could encourage them to talk about their thoughts or feelings so that person can come to their own conclusions about how to change their feelings or behaviors.”

Sitting down and discussing a sensitive topic or point of stress with a loved one can be a delicate situation. Even with the best of intentions in mind, the wrong phrase or tone of voice can escalate feelings of anxiety instead of providing relief. 

For example, imagine a person is feeling particularly worried about a big meeting at work with their manager, so they seek out a friend for advice. If that friend just dismisses their worries with statements like “what do you have to be worried about?” or “stop feeling that way, you’re just doing this to yourself,” in all likelihood that person is going to leave the conversation feeling even more riddled with self-doubt than before. The friend wasn’t trying to make matters worse, but their well-intentioned advice to “just snap out of it” made the person feel even less confident in their social abilities than before.

The same can be said regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. If a loved one calls you up and confesses they just can’t stop checking the news and are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety about the future it’s a better idea to validate their worries and let them vent a little bit as opposed to shooting down their fears and saying “this will all blow over.”

The study included 478 married adults who had recently gotten into a spat with their spouse. Each participant was asked to fill out an online survey, but before that, they were told to think about a person with whom they had recently discussed their marital problems. Then, during the survey, subjects were given one of six different possible supportive messages and asked to envision their confidant repeating that message. Finally, the participants graded the message based on various factors.

“We manipulated the messages based on how well the support message validates, recognizes, or acknowledges the support recipients’ emotions, feelings, and experiences,” Tian says. “Essentially, the messages were manipulated to exhibit low, moderate, or high levels of person-centeredness, and we created two messages for each level of person-centeredness.”

Essentially, messages that validated and recognized the participant’s feelings on their marriage were rated as the most helpful and supportive. 

For instance, this message: “disagreeing with someone you care about is always hard. It makes sense that you would be upset about this,” was rated highly. On the other hand, messages like this: “nobody is worth getting so worked up about. Stop being so depressed,” were rated as much less helpful.

All in all, the research team concluded that messages that ignored and repressed participants’ feelings did not reduce their emotional distress whatsoever.

“In fact, those messages were perceived as dominating and lacking argument strength,” Tian adds. “Those messages induced more resistance to social support, such that the participants reported feeling angry after receiving the message. They also reported actually criticizing the message while reading it.”

Words of validation and unconditional support, however, helped participants much more on an emotional level.

Some of us are better equipped mentally to deal with the psychological stress that has come along with this pandemic, but that doesn’t invalidate how others may be feeling. If you have someone in your life who is struggling mentally through all of this, this study is a good piece of research to keep in mind while offering support.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Communication.