Validation vs. Affirmation: What is the Crucial Difference?

An African American man's hand rests on a small rectangular chalkboard. "Impossible" is written in chalk, with the man's hand covering the first two letters, so it reads "possible".

In Motivational Interviewing, you may hear the term “affirmation” frequently. In Motivational Interviewing, we use affirmations vs. validation or confirmation. What’s the difference between affirmation and validation? Is it just a matter of semantics?


As we explore the techniques of Motivational Interviewing, we can learn how to affirm and hold space for those we work with. Here’s how to understand validation vs. affirmation in this context.


Motivational Interviewing: A Path to Positive Behaviors

Motivational Interviewing is more than a technique. It’s a powerful tool for those in human services workspaces. Motivational Interviewing, or MI, helps us to hold a positive space for those we serve by encouraging and empowering them to make positive behavior choices.


For example, in Motivational Interviewing, we may express curiosity through questions with clients to support them to understand if their substance use is moving them toward their parenting goals. Or we may work with someone to unpack how following the conditions of probation/parole can move them toward employment and stronger relationships.


So, how do we create this motivational space for those we serve? One component of MI is affirming positive skills and/or efforts. We use affirmations to help reinforce and self-motivate individuals and build up confidence to take those critical constructive steps toward their goals.


Motivational Interviewing isn’t about pushing someone or leading someone toward a desired outcome. Rather, it’s about listening, opening a safe space where individuals can build rapport with us and feel safe to share their feelings. Then, by holding the space to unpack those feelings, we can help them find the self-motivating factors that will drive them forward.


In Motivational Interviewing, we use 4 Processes:


  • Engage: Building a relationship with the person we are serving.
  • Focus: Reaching and articulating an agreement about the area of focus for the discussion.
  • Evoke: Helping with “change talk” and evoking their “why.”
  • Plan: Discussing a plan for how they will reach their desired outcome.

MI may mean helping someone recognize that they’re motivated by wanting a better relationship with their significant other or children. In addition, they may find motivation in completing an educational or career goal, making healthy life choices, or feeling empowered to take control of their mental health.


During the MI process, the folks we serve may recognize that they don’t really feel motivated by legal or other obligations. So it’s about listening and helping them fully realize their “big picture.” For example, a high school student may not feel particularly motivated by receiving good grades, but they may feel more motivated by recognizing how their schoolwork can help them start on a path to their dream career or maintain their status on the basketball team.


What Does it Mean to Affirm?

Affirmations are responses we share to those we serve that highlight strengths and/or efforts in a meaningful and substantive fashion. While Affirmations can be validating, there is a difference between affirmation and validation or confirmation. Validation and confirmation mean that we acknowledge the comments. We might say, “Yes!” or, “Right on!”


Affirmation, on the other hand, goes deeper and is much more specific. Affirmation is expressing empathy and, most importantly, highlighting strength and/or efforts the person has been putting forth. When we offer affirmation, we are supporting the person to become more self-aware of their abilities to go and do something positive—medication management, attending classes, and on.


Affirmations are different than validation in that they are more about confirming and empowering. It’s about focusing on the person’s strengths and efforts—no matter how small—to support them in tuning into their power, and their capacity to effect change in their own lives. Affirmation is critical to the MI process because it’s how we acknowledge the person for what is already inside them and what steps they may be taking.


MI is all about relationship and rapport building. We’re trying to create a connection with the person we’re serving, whether that’s a student, a client, a patient, or someone we’re teaching. We want to build an environment that empowers the person.


When we express an affirmation, we’re acknowledging the strength within the person we’re working with. We’re letting them know that we see their resilience, effort, and capacity to overcome obstacles in front of them.


Validation might mean saying, “Yes! I see why you did that.” Confirmation could be, “Yes, I hear you.” Whereas when we offer affirmation, we might say, “What you did took a lot of courage.” When we offer affirmation, we let the person know we see their positive strengths. It’s not about “I see/value/understand” but rather recognizing those traits that motivate them, move them forward, and come from within them.


Affirmation and Engagement

Affirmation is part of the engagement process. It’s how we build rapport with another person. Therefore, it is critical that our affirmations be real, genuine, and congruent. Some evidence-based practices have a quota for affirmations. We find this can lead to flat, stale, or even disingenuous affirmations. Affirmations are kind of like hot sauce—you want just enough. You want the person to feel it’s come from a real place from within you and you believe it!


A big reason for ensuring our affirmations are genuine and congruent is trauma. Often, people that went through traumatic interpersonal events have experienced affirmations as way to groom or manipulate them. When we share affirmations with those we serve, we’re doing so to prize an effort or strength that we really see within them and that we want them to be more aware of.


During our engagement with the person, we want to acknowledge the good—the positive steps that have led them to the conversation. So we can still affirm their strengths even if they aren’t thrilled to be there or are frustrated with their circumstances.


In the course of MI, we may explore why someone’s experience and choices led them to this particular situation. We also want to create a space where they share some of their higher values which are often powerful motivators, especially as we evoke.


For example, you may say something like, “You’ve talked about how important your family is to you. You displayed a lot of resilience and bravery by sharing how you need help with emotional regulation as a parent. It really speaks to your dedication to your kids.


Affirmations are meaningful and specific. They lead to an identification of those higher values and change talk. Eventually, positive affirmations can help empower people to work toward a plan. Each decision a person makes toward a positive step or behavior that will move them toward a positive outcome is worthy of acknowledgment and affirmation. No matter how small the step.


Even if a person is upset or hostile in the situation, we can identify that those emotions come from a place of strength. It takes courage to sit down for a discussion when you know the outcome and consequences might not be what you desire.


When we express affirmations, we’re saying that we see the person’s strength. We affirm that they are a fellow human being and that they are resilient. Every human has positive qualities, and in Motivational Interviewing, we acknowledge and affirm those positive aspects.


MI is a crucial tool for all those working in human services. If you would like to learn more about how your team can explore aspects of Motivational Interviewing and other tools we delve into at Share Collaborative, please contact us. We have training and resources to help individuals and their organizations achieve positive outcomes in their community.

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