You’re standing by the photocopier when a colleague walks up to you and starts to unload about his frustrations. “Can you believe what Pat said in that meeting!” What do you do? Is it ok to hear him out? What do you say back? If you want to take the high road, what’s the best path forward?

Is it ok to let someone vent?

Yes. Go ahead, let your teammate vent to you. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure that builds up in daily life and it’s important for people to have a safe spot to release that pressure. Occasional blasts of hot steam keep your teammate from overheating. You’re doing something important for your colleague when you’re willing to be that person.

What exactly is venting?

Venting is when someone describes (usually in a diatribe full of energy and emotion) how they are experiencing their world. Their descriptions are often one-sided, overly dramatic, and wrought with flawed logic. That’s ok. That’s how you know it’s venting. The purpose of a good vent is not to arrive at a sound decision. The purpose is to release some of the hostility and emotional build-up so that the person is in a better position to choose the path forward using sound judgment.

Here are some examples of great venting…

“I can’t believe we have to get that report done by Tuesday. I can’t even start until Friday because I’m preparing for that ridiculous client visit someone said we’d do on Thursday. And my kid has a soccer tournament out of town this weekend, so I have no idea how I’m going to get this done!”

“Are you kidding me? They thought my report wasn’t detailed enough! I worked for six weeks on that report! I talked to 73 stakeholders in five different countries!! I looked at trends going back nine seasons and across four different product lines!!! I’d like to see anyone do a more detailed report!!!!”

“There they go again—going out to lunch without inviting me. What is that about!?! I am always there to take on their work when they have to go to an appointment. I smile and listen to stories about their weekends. It’s really hurtful that they don’t even think to ask me out to lunch!”

What do these have in common. First, they are first-person statement with “I’ and “me” rather than “they” and “them.” Second, they are statements, not questions. They are monologues, not dialogues. Third, they are focused. They are about a single event or a moment in time.

Where does venting go wrong?

The problem is that venting can often stray into more hostile territory. Here are the warning signs that your colleague isn’t actually venting but doing something more insidious.

  1. They start to talk about someone who isn’t present, shifting from venting to blaming and shaming.
  2. They try to get you to validate their experience, shifting from venting to commiserating and conspiring.
  3. They repeat their performance on a regular basis, shifting from venting to complaining and wallowing.

How to redirect

Let’s take each of these problems in turn.

First, if your teammate starts kvetching about someone else, that’s gossiping not venting. Don’t tolerate it. Just say, “Bob’s not here to give his side of the story, so just focus on your side of the story.”

Next, if the person keeps finishing their sentences with, “…wouldn’t you agree,” or “isn’t that right?” that’s trying to rope you in. Gently steer them back to their own story. “It doesn’t matter what I think, I just want you to have a safe place to talk about how you feel.”

If it’s the third time in a week that you’re hearing the same story, that a sign that the person needs to do more than vent. Stop the deluge and look for an opportunity to provide substantive help. “This is the third time we’ve talked about this and I can tell it’s still really upsetting you. Why don’t we set aside some time tomorrow to talk about how you could address the issue?”

If venting becomes a problem

It’s possible that you’re becoming exhausted by a colleague’s venting. Maybe you’re tired of taking on the weight of their problems in addition to your own. If so, find a quiet moment to share how you’re feeling. “I want to be there for you. Lately, our conversations have been focused on things you’re worried about, it’s making me focus on the negative rather than the positive. What could we do to make our conversations more constructive?”

Work is hard. Life is really hard. Sometimes you just need someone to hear you rant about how overwhelming it feels. Often, the chance to vent and feel heard is enough to jettison the emotion and get back to the task at hand. Be a safe harbor for you teammates to vent—just don’t let it go beyond that.

Further Reading

How You Can Put an End to Gossip

How to Deal with a Down in the Dumps Coworker

Can You Afford to be Oblivious to your Teammate’s Mental Health?

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