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Ruth Cohn
The Practice of Empathy:
The “Validation” Step of Intentional Dialog

In my work as a couple’s therapist one tool I rely on, is the structured “Intentional Dialog” of Harville Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Therapy. I find it particularly potent for couples with histories of childhood trauma and neglect, whose childhood experiences so readily intrude on their current lives and confuse their relationships. And generally speaking, adult children of trauma and neglect have had to fend for themselves and lacked for the comfort or the skills of trusting relationship. The structure of the dialog implicitly teaches relationship skills and capacities, most importantly perhaps, the practice of empathy.  Increasingly, I have come to value this special aspect of the dialog. Looking around me, I find the true understanding of empathy to be precious and rare.

Interestingly “empathy” is historically quite young. Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt discovered in their research, that prior to 1910 the word did not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, or in the dictionaries of other major languages. They hypothesize that it is a relatively undeveloped and immature human capability. Although the Biblical Golden Rule teaches us something similar: to do unto others what we would have them to do unto ourselves; true empathy is not that.  Rather empathy is doing unto others what they would wish, which may in fact be quite different from what we would wish to have done unto ourselves. This involves feeling and learning about another person’s world, even if we think we know, even if we imagine (or wish!)  them to be like ourselves. In surprising ways we may discover that they are not, and they may have unique, even baffling reactions to the same stimulus. Where one person might feel cared for, remembered and supported, for example, by a gentle inquiry about how a personal challenge is progressing, another might feel intruded upon, invaded or even nagged. Neither is right or wrong. The two individuals and the two responses are just different.    

Understanding each other’s feelings and responses; learning about and accepting difference, contribute to harmony. To use Hendrix’s own words, we want to arrive at a stance where “It is OK that you’re not me!” That truly is the solution to all the world’s problems. It may sound arrogant to say, but I believe that those of us who study and practice empathy, as we do in Intentional Dialog, have something important to teach others, to help the world along.


The practice of true empathy is what we strive for in the “Validation” step of Intentional Dialog. It is an especial feat of emotional acrobatics (and heroism!) when one has strong feelings of one’s own on the subject at hand, or when one’s “buttons get pushed.” In this step the idea is not necessarily to agree. On the contrary, it needs to be acceptable that we may not be alike in all ways. In fact often the feelings and opinions that we are in a position to validate for our partners, we will never in a million years share. And that is fine. The idea is to make the effort to see through their eyes, feel through their feelings, think using the logic that makes sense to them. The challenge is to momentarily climb into the partner’s shoes, or better yet the partner’s skin and experience the topic at hand from there. Our purpose is not to stay there, not to become the partner, but to visit long enough to really “get” it. When practicing this step of the dialog I say “It makes sense…” and yet it may not make sense at all in my framework. I am not necessarily saying it make sense to me. Rather I am entering my partner’s framework, connecting the dots from within that, and coming to understand where he or she ends up.

The grandest challenge of all in this, the supreme act of balance and grace, is to hold onto myself and still be able to visit my partner’s world,  to have a boundary. This is to say, while taking a salutary walk in my partner’s shoes, I can still feel the solid core that is me, and that might have a wildly different point of view. And that solid core of me does not feel threatened by this differentness; or defeated by seeing the logic of another view.  It is like touring another country and tasting its foods, conducting business in its currency, attempting its customs, even speaking its language, but all the while thinking in my own tongue and planning eventually to go home and resume my own cultural life. If only it were that easy!

Our parents taught us to be like they were: “If you do what we do and what we tell you to do, you are ‘good’. If you do what we do and what we tell you to do, that is doing what is ‘right.’” The message is that same is good and different means someone is wrong, or someone has to change or give up something. Then it becomes a struggle about who that will be. No wonder we are so anxious when we encounter diversity of all kinds!


A big part of what makes validation and empathy so much more challenging and less fun than a cross cultural vacation, is the disruptive and disturbing experience of “triggering.” There is a whole neurobiology of triggering and I am not going to go into that here. I will just simply describe what it looks and feels like. From birth and as we grow up, our earliest interpersonal experiences provide the template for relationship that will persist through our lives. Although these patterns can be altered through therapy and potent life experiences, they are remarkably enduring. When a person’s template is based in more extreme life experiences like trauma and neglect, reactions will be that much stronger and all the more unrelenting. What I mean by triggering is simply tripping the switch that activates an old pattern of feeling responses.

A graphic example from my own marriage goes back to our early courtship days when I surprised my partner with an extravagant birthday gift. I was quite excited about it, thinking of myself as thoughtful, creative and generous for what I had thought of and executed. My then new partner’s response to receiving my present, was extreme suspicion and anger. I was shocked. Of course I got my feelings hurt. My intentions were only good, my wish only to make him happy. My partner’s reaction was so different from what mine would be that I concluded “there is something wrong with this person!” -until I learned his story. His childhood experience with gifts and surprises had been an agony. His narcissistic mother lavished him generously with what she wanted, with what she thought he should want, with what she wanted to give him. Then she expected to extract her pound of gratitude for her magnanimity. Her gifts were a trap, and were all about her. This is what I triggered in him. Understanding all this background, my partner’s strong emotional response made perfect sense. Through the lens of his life experience, in his world, I could see it. (And it did not necessarily mean I was like her!) I was still disappointed, and I still love extravagant surprises and gifts for myself. Understanding my partner did not mean I have to be like him. Saying “It makes sense” does not mean I take his world view on as my own. It means I can see how it works for him. And I learned to make use of the information.  If I truly understand and empathize, and want to give my partner a gift that makes him feel loved, I need to do it his way. (Of course when it is my birthday, he knows what to do!)


The objective of the validation step of the dialog is to make the person whose feelings are being validated, feel validated. We intend that the validation statements convey: “who you are, even in your differentness from me, has value and validity. I can understand it.” What this means, is I must work very hard as validator, to keep my own self out of it. This is not always easy to do.  It is the work of exercising the clear boundary between us. It is especially difficult if I have strong feelings of my own on the subject, like or different. If my feelings are similar, I may overshoot and rather than empathizing with my partner, just end up talking about myself. That does not end up making my partner feel understood. And if my partner had a narcissistic parent (or two!) as mine did, rather than being validating, it will be upsetting. “Here we go again, it is all about you!” 

If I have strong opposing views and they seep in or make me unable to see from my partner’s perspective, the process might hit the wall. There is no empathic progress made, but a potential for more damage, more misunderstanding. Of course most challenging of all is when my partner’s strong feelings are about me!

Precision, however, can result in a growth of boundary and connection, allowing us to be both separate and individual, and intimate. This is our goal.

The Mechanics of the Validation Step

The mechanics of the validation step are this simple formula:
“It makes sense that you______________________________  Because___________________________________________. 
All of what fills in the lines comes from what the person being validated has said. 

For example:
It makes sense that my extravagant gift made you feel suspicious and angry, because by giving you something expensive that you did not ask for, it felt to you as if I were gratifying myself.
I am not by any means saying that I was gratifying myself!  I know I wasn’t. But I can see why he felt the way he did about it and the feelings do make sense in his world.

Because the person being validated is most likely still in a raw feeling place during this step, it is most effective to keep these statements very short, so there is no need to have to go into much thinking to follow. Validation statements that are short and to the point, tend to “zing,” or go straight to the person’s heart. Understanding and connection, it is hoped, will be soon to follow.

Ruth Cohn, MFT is in private practice in Rockridge. AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, also certified in EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. She specializes in relationship work with adults overcoming histories of childhood trauma and neglect, their intimate partners and families. She can be reached at cohnruth@aol.com or www.cominghometopassion.com.

© 2007