Validation Comes First in Powerful Conversation

My husband is a problem-solver, as are many of my friends and colleagues.  Humans love to be problem-solvers because when we solve a problem for someone (or think we have) we get a reward in the brain (a hit of dopamine – often referred to as the pleasure hormone) which is terribly addictive.


Not only that, being able to dish out advice from our technical expertise or from our experience gives us a sense of importance (also vital to the healthy functioning of our brain) and feeds our sense of self-worth as we have been hardwired to believe that our value is defined by what we know and the formal positions we hold (titles and pay rates).

There are a number of issues with this, but the most notable being that I don’t feel heard, or more specifically, I don’t feel validated, and so my sense of self-worth is challenged.

Regardless of the great advice I’m given, or the useful questions I’m asked, until I feel heard and validated, my brain won’t move forward.  And the problem with that is that the person on the other end of the conversation is reluctant to validate a perspective or emotion they feel is incorrect or needs to shift.

But validate you must, because all experience is truth.  My truth will always be different to your truth, but it will always be my truth.  It’s a bit like when your toddler brings home their amazing painting of beautiful mummy, and mummy is unrecognisable, but of course you comment – “Wow, isn’t Mummy beautiful!”

Being able to accept and validate the perspectives and emotions in conversations is a critical first step to helping people think better and to develop great solutions to their challenges.

We can loosely categorise validation into three types:  Subjective, Protective or Objective.

Subjective:  “There is no need to feel upset about this”

Not particularly useful as I AM feeling upset and I have good reason!  Get ready for me to shut down and not engage with you any further.

Protective:  “OMG, did they make you feel upset?  That is SOOO BAD!”

Also not very useful, as it feeds my ‘upsetness’ and makes it OK to dwell there.  Get ready for another 45 minutes of upset.

Objective:  “I can see that you are upset”

Extremely useful.  Yes I am upset and I am grateful that you have noticed without making a big deal.  I feel heard.  (There is more to this around the value of labeling emotion, but that’s for another article!)

Spend some time noticing if you validate others in your conversations, and if you do, which kind of validation do you favour.  Notice also the usefulness of the response you get.

And remember, this also applies to your own self-talk.

Always Seek Permission to Engage in Conversation

Every conversation is an emotional one.  We are emotional beings, and can easily be triggered emotionally on a continuum from Fear to Excitement.  When we refer to conversations that are not emotional, we are really describing conversations where emotion is effectively managed or are in the slightly happy state.

In terms of thinking capability, and problem-solving capability, we are at our best when slightly above calm and acceptance, in the ‘slightly happy’ space.

There are many ways to support others to get into that slightly happy place of acceptance, and a powerful one is permission.

Until I did my coach training back in 2006, I had not really had this concept brought to my attention.  It’ s likely that we all use it occasionally without realising because we are very polite beings, but using it deliberately takes conversations to a whole new level.

Asking permission in a conversation is respectful, it acknowledges the appropriate control that person has and should have within the conversation, it facilitates deeper thinking and reflection, and it is extremely effective in building trust.

Using permission protects you from inadvertently setting off ‘threat’ responses that we know can shut people down or limit their cognitive capability.  It’s like getting the green light to proceed down a path of questioning or discussion, particularly if that path is personal or potentially challenging.

So how and when do you use permission.  Well, firstly, more often than you think and this may feel a bit uncomfortable at first.  Secondly, you don’t need to use the word ‘permission’ because that gets a bit creepy.  And finally, at the beginning and end of a conversation, and at each point where you are changing focus or wandering into uncharted territory.

Here are some examples of using permission that might make this easier for you to experiment with.

  • Are you OK to have this conversation now? Do you have time?
  • Is it OK if I ask you a few questions about what you just said?
  • We’re getting into personal stuff there, are you still Ok to continue?
  • I can see this is emotional for you, do you need to take a minute, or are you OK to continue?
  • I’m thinking it might be of value to explore that concept, is that OK?
  • Is it OK if I reflect back what I am hearing you say?
  • Would you like to look at what options you now have?
  • Are you comfortable leaving the conversation here. Is there anything else?
  • Would it be OK if I add a different perspective?
  • May I challenge you on that to see if we can take your thinking a bit deeper?

Take some time this week to add permission and validation (link to the previous article) to your conversations.  The more you try, the more comfortable it will feel.

Curiosity Killed the Assumption

How annoying are those people who finish your sentences?  What assumptions do they constantly make about what is going on inside your head?  Lots!

And they do this for good reason.

Firstly, the human brain learns by making assumptions – it lumps together similar information from all its sensory inputs, makes a map through connections and stores it for later use.  To save energy, when new information comes into the brain it searches the archives and if there is a similar map to what it is experiencing, it will ‘assume’ it is the same.

For example, we assume that people who drive a Mercedes Benz are wealthy, because other people we know who drive Mercedes are wealthy (and the advertisements also suggest the same!)

This is very useful in that it saves us from relearning behaviours and knowledge every time we need to use them, but it is often inaccurate because in the absence of facts, we simply fill in the gaps that make sense for us.

Basically, assumptions are a necessary evil – a cognitive shortcut that can cause us to respond to situations in ways that are not useful.

Enter the third step in powerful conversations – curiosity.  I love this concept and spend significant time on it in my Rewired Conversations program.

When you are engaged in a challenging, emotionally charged or coaching style conversation, and you have Validated and asked Permission to engage in further conversation, it’s then time to get Curious.

Curiosity helps conversation in a number of ways.  It

  • Gets people talking, and hence engages them
  • Shows you are interested and builds trust
  • Provides you with context and information that will help you respond and support in more useful ways
  • Fills in the gaps and gets to the facts

Curious questions that are powerful are the ones you ask that you don’t know the answer to, and preferably that the other person also has to think twice about.

Here are some examples of curious questions:

Tell me more…

How long has this been an issue for you?

Do you know what to do next?

How can I help you think this through?

What self-talk is going on inside your head?

What would happen if you did nothing?

Spend this week getting curious.  My Golden Rule is to ask 3 questions before you give advice or counter someone’s suggestions or decision, and be present to when you make assumptions.

Time to Make Waves – Challenge and Stretch

“You can’t say that!”

Why not?  Because we sophisticated, socially evolved human beings are too fearful of upsetting others or unwilling to risk or experience the discomfort of stretching and challenging the thinking of others, even when avoidance will lead to longer term pain.

I believe it’s because we simply aren’t that skilled at it, and we don’t do the work as teams and organisations that we need to which supports good quality business dialogue and deliberate and useful debate.

But we need to start stretching and challenge our own thinking and the thinking of others.  Einstein is famously quoted as saying…

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.

Powerful conversations take us beyond our current patterns and preferences of thinking and usually require the intervention of diverse and curious questioning, and a preparedness to call out the potential issues and flaws in the thinking of others.

BUT, we need to do it masterfully, and if you follow the three prior steps in this four step process – Validation, Permission and Curiosity, you will be in a much better position to respectfully challenge thinking in a way that minimises a threat (pushback and denial) response and maximises diverse and creative thinking.

Here are some ways you can start your challenges…

May I challenge some of your thinking around that?

I can see some potential flaws in that thinking which you may not be aware of.  May I share another perspective?

We have different experience and perspectives here.  Would it be useful to take some time sharing those?

Unfortunately, due to policy constraints, that approach is unlikely to work, but would you be up for a discussion on how we can achieve the same outcome a different way?

So there it is – Michelle Loch’s Four Steps to Powerful Conversations.

Go out and have a powerful conversation day!