Have you been on the receiving end of a lot of venting lately? I’m noticing that folks are overwhelmed, and their emotions are close to the surface. (I get it. I’m feeling the same way.) You might find it difficult to have constructive conversations without first investing time in letting people vent their emotional steam out of the red zone.

The Worst Way to Respond to Venting

When you’re in a hurry or not feeling particularly empathetic, it’s tempting to forego the venting and instead jump straight to “what are we going to do about this?” Unfortunately, when you dive into fixing things, you cause many problems, including:

  • Making the person feel like you don’t have confidence in them
  • Invalidating their feelings by bypassing them in search of a way forward
  • Reducing their accountability to figure out a solution themselves
  • Creating dependence on you to rescue them in the future
  • Eroding trust and leaving them feeling you’re not a safe person to whom they can admit their struggles

On the other end of the spectrum, when you let them complain without helping them get to the other side you:

  • Allow their distress to persist
  • Ignore the work that they need to accomplish
  • Increase the likelihood that they will use you as an outlet for their feelings in the future

Constructive Ways to Respond to Venting

Instead of being too passive or too active, find the middle ground. Help the person explore their feelings and identify where those emotions are coming from so they can work through them and get traction toward a resolution. These are my favorite questions for helping a stuck person find a path through the fog.

When Someone is Emotional

If the person is grousing about a gazillion grievances and gripes but not getting any closer to a remedy, your greatest value is to help them figure out what’s wrong and what might make it better. These are my go-to’s.

  • What do you need?
  • What is this about for you?
  • What’s at stake here?
  • What do you wish you could do?

When Someone is Stuck in the Past

Two colleagues talking, one is complainingIf the person is venting about all the past injustices they’ve faced, past failures they don’t want to repeat, or glory days they wish they could revisit, you can help them by reorienting them toward the future.

  • Where from here?
  • What’s the next step?
  • What would it take to change that?
  • How could it be different?

When Someone Keeps Poking Holes

You might be on the receiving end of venting that includes a litany of “but…but…buts.” The person might be fearful about the implications of a decision or into the weeds of what it will take to implement it. Help them wrangle those bucking broncos of worry into an organized list of what they need to resolve and what they’ll do about it. What? So What? Now What?

  • What do we still need to solve?
  • Which of those do we need to decide first?
  • Does that affect whether we do it or just how we do it?
  • What would it take to feel ready to proceed?

If your colleagues keep coming to you to vent, first pat yourself on the back for being someone they trust with their struggles. But don’t make either of the most common mistakes. If you let them wallow in emotions, you erode accountability. If you take control, you transfer the accountability onto you.

Additional Resources

When Your Teammate Needs to Vent

Does a Manager Have to Be a Therapist These Days?

From Harvard Business Review: How to Tell the Difference Between Venting and Office Gossip