Being the father of young twins means I spend a lot of time rocking babies back to sleep. While I do my best to be present while nurturing my daughters back to their time of rest, I also spend a lot of time looking over their shoulders at my cell phone. I have a great system that I have developed that involves placing a blanket “just so” on the side of their heads where the glare of the phone does not interfere with the darkness that leads to sleep. Between that and the double sound machines in their bedroom, we have created quite a peaceful environment. For the first few months I would simply waste that time surfing social media sites and creating wish lists on Amazon, but I have since decided to make that time more useful by reading books on the Kindle app on my iPhone.
In doing so, I recently read a book entitled “I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships” written by Michael Sorenson. This book primarily concerns the act of validation in conversations with others and makes an argument that validation is a primary key to building lasting relationships and positive interactions with anyone we encounter. One of my main takeaways from the book is that most people we communicate with are not looking for us to solve their problems or offer advice, but they are simply looking for someone to hear them and to appreciate their emotions and/or struggle.
In the book, Sorenson, referenced a study conducted by psychologist John Gottmon who has studied thousands of couples to determine what creates lasting relationships. In doing so, he invited over 130 newlywed couples to his lab at the University of Washington to observe the couples interact with one another. As he studied the couples he noticed a trend in that “…partners would make small, seemingly insignificant requests for connection from each other.” He found that one partner would make a comment about something observed or heard to the spouse and then would look for the spouse to share the interest or appreciation. Gottmon found that the way the spouse responded to these “bids” had a monumental impact on the success of these relationships. Shockingly, Gottman ultimately found that by studying these interactions he “…can apparently predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples … will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy, several years down the road.”
In reading this book, the explanation about validation immediately clicked with me in that I had practiced validation in the past without realizing it. In thinking about those interactions, I realized that those conversations were much more engaging and fruitful than when I simply responded with my experience or had my mind elsewhere. In thinking about this concept, I applied this to my experience in dealing with clients and opposing counsel in litigation. How often does an opposing counsel explain their position in a case and we immediately seek to counter with our position before even acknowledging their statement? How often does a client share a concern with us that is derived from being new to the litigation process that we dismiss by telling them that we will take care of the issue without adequately appreciating their concern? How often do we provide advice to colleagues or clients when they are not really asking for advice but they are really looking for validation?
For those of us in the litigation world, our jobs depend on interacting with others on a daily basis whether it be on the phone, in a client meeting or at a deposition. Validation is going to make those interactions more impactful and I would argue that validation is a key tool for better representing our clients. It will lead to better interactions with opposing counsel, more impactful depositions, and likely for more cost-effective resolutions for our clients. People want to work with and reach resolutions with people they like, and people like people that make them feel good about themselves.
Sorenson said that effective validation has two parts: (1) it identifies a specific emotion and (2) it offers justification for feeling that emotion. I would encourage you to watch some of your conversations in both the working world and your personal life and to determine whether those interactions could be benefited by validation. We are often so concerned by what we are going to say next and by trying to quickly fix whatever problem that is presented to us that we often forget that most people just want to be heard and understood. Many times we have really good intentions by offering a quick fix or telling someone that they should not feel a certain way, but Sorenson says that those efforts can often be viewed as being dismissive even though they come from a sincere effort.
I would greatly encourage you to read the book and to apply this concept to your daily life. I would also encourage you to see if you can find a way to incorporate validation into your role as a lawyer. You can still file your motion to dismiss and you can still vigorously defend your client but I think you will find that by showing some level of empathy even to your adversaries it will make your job and life much easier. Or you can keep arguing with everyone and be perceived as a narcissist by all your peers. The choice is yours but I have to leave now to put a baby to bed.