Letting someone vent off their frustrations makes you a good friend, a caring family member, and a comforting significant other. Being a good listener, however, often requires a little more effort than nodding your head while they rant. You need to make the people you care about feel comfortable, understood, and validated.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Everyone needs to let off a little steam every once in a while, and people love a good listener. Maybe your friend is having a hard time at work, or maybe your significant other is dealing with family drama and they have no one else to turn to. While you’re (probably) not a professional therapist, it doesn’t mean you can’t lend an ear to their troubles or offer a shoulder to cry on. If you approach things the right way, it’s possible to hear everyone out (even coworkers) without completely draining yourself in the process.
Open the Floodgates and Make Them Feel Comfortable
Making a friend feel comfortable can sometimes be as easy as demonstrating welcoming body language. Little things like lowering or tilting your head, sitting somewhere below them so you’re not towering over them, looking them in the eye, and smiling can make them more comfortable with opening up. If you’re listening to a romantic partner, or someone else you’re very close with, a comforting touch can help as well. Gregorio Billikopf from the University of California at Berkeley, who researches interpersonal relations, conflict resolution and mediation, and interpersonal negotiation skills, suggests inviting them to sit down. The invitation can be as simple as a gesture, but it conveys that you’re interested and ready to listen attentively.
Once it seems like everyone is comfortable, feel free to kick things off. In their book Friendship: How to Make and Keep Friends, Harold H. Dawley and Mike Frazier recommend you ask a few simple questions. If your significant other is noticeably irritated about something, for example, start with something like “Have I done something to bother you?” If you are the cause, you’ve now shown initiative and have the power to fix it. If not, follow up with questions in the realm of “Are you upset about something?” or “Is there something that’s bothering you?”
Billikopf also suggests you prepare mentally for what may come your way. Helping someone vent is like opening a flood gate, and your job is to help them safely empty large reservoirs of emotion, anger, stress, and frustration:
…a party who is holding in her emotions needs a release. Such an individual is unlikely to (1) think clearly about the challenge or (2) be receptive to outside input from another. The role of the listener or helper is to allow such an individual to open the lock gates. When he does, the water gushes out. During this venting process, there is still too much pressure for a person to consider other perspectives. Only when the water level has leveled off between the two compartments, does the water begin to flow evenly back and forth.
When you offer yourself up for listening, know what you’re getting into. If you try too hard to calm them down or hold them back, you’ll run the risk of trivialising their complaints and making them feel worse. Open the floodgates and be ready to stand watch until the emotional pressure equalises.
Be an Active Listener
While a friend vents, it’s important that you listen to what they say and actually hear it. Mark Goulston, MD, the author of Just Listen, explains that there are two major pitfalls you want to avoid while listening to someone vent:
Option 1 is to jump in and give advice — but this is not the same as listening, and the person doing the venting may respond with “Just listen to me! Don’t tell me what to do.”
Option 2 (usually attempted after Option 1) is to swing to the other extreme, and sit there silently. But this doesn’t actively help the person doing the venting to drain their negative emotions.
The key is to listen and respond in ways that show you’re listening by repeating back key information like names or previous parts of the story. This practice is known as “reflective listening“. However, try to avoid sounding like a parrot on their shoulder. If you’re listening to your coworker vent about their boss piling on extra work and how it’s stressing them out, don’t use their exact words to respond. Paraphrase in your own words so your coworker knows you’re listening and absorbing the information, not merely bouncing it back. For example, you could respond with something like “It doesn’t seem fair that you have to take on extra duties when you already have so much on your plate.”
Also, you shouldn’t ever try to change the subject. You may think you’re helping by shifting your buddy’s focus from their crappy job to movies, but they will just feel rejected and invalidated. Avoid multitasking as well. The listening process involves only one bird and one stone. Even if it seems like their venting flow has stalled, respect their pauses. Your friend may be searching for words or even discovering solutions on their own, so it’s best to avoid being too distracting, or distracted.
According to the Red Cross, offering non-verbal encouragement can help keep your friend comfortable venting. A nod, a genuine smile, and even an “mmm” or “huh” can go a long way in showing that you’re still engaged. Remember, the more they can let out, the faster their emotional pressure will stabilise and the sooner they will feel better. If your friend has been venting about their family, for example, and a little encouragement is needed, Billikopf recommends you incorporate an occasional “dangling question”. Say something like “So, your family makes you feel…?” And prolong the word “feel”. They will take it as a cue and finish what you’ve started, and you’ll earn some bonus listening points.
Understanding Is More Important Than Fixing
More often than not, the person venting is looking for validation and understanding, not specific solutions. Michael Rooni, the author of the book Attractive Communication, suggests you practice “no-solution” listening:
Sometimes people simply want to release hurtful emotions and get something off their chest. And for them communication is not necessarily about having their husband or wife or co-worker come up with a solution. They just want to be heard and want to be understood because they’re hurting inside.
Let the venting person feel whatever they’re feeling. Denise Marigold, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rennison University College, suggests it’s best to avoid positive reframing and false reassurance in an attempt to alter the venting person’s feelings. It may be tempting to try and make them feel better, but Marigold explains that if your significant other is venting about their job, they don’t want to be told how great they are, that they’re doing fine, or that everything is going to be OK. They want to be heard, and have their concerns about their job taken seriously. Unless there are deeper issues involved, they will likely arrive at those conclusions on their own, so give them time to and sort out their feelings. It also doesn’t hurt to verbally acknowledge what your significant other is feeling so they know you understand.
If the venting person wants your help, they will ask for it. Don’t make it about you by offering your perspective or how you would do things, explains Rooni. Let them communicate their needs. If a coworker is too shy or uncomfortable to ask, you can offer your services with an open question like “Is there anything I can do?” If they do ask for advice or help, Val Walker, a grief counsellor and author of The Art of Comforting, recommends you keep your suggestions specific, follow through with your offer, and avoid making any unrealistic promises. For example, don’t just gush out “I’ll help you through this, no matter what. Everything is going to be alright.” How are you going to help? And you don’t know that everything will be alright, do you? Instead, say something like “I’ll give you a call tomorrow night so we can talk more about this. Hang in there, OK?” They know exactly how you’re going to help (offering to listen some more), and you offer them some encouragement without giving false hope.
Know When to Stop Them
While it’s good to let people vent, you should also have a limit. Listening to someone complain constantly can be toxic, and even lead to you venting to someone else about it — creating a chain of venting frustrations that may never end. This is especially problematic when it’s a significant other, roommate, coworker, or other person you spend a lot of time around. Venting can also become a long-term problem for those that do vent too often. Leon F. Seltzer, PhD, a private practice psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, explains that venting can feel like problem-solving to some, and it can become an issue when viable ways of confronting their problems exist and they substitute venting for acting.
If a pesky coworker’s venting becomes an all too often occurrence, Kevin Kruse at Forbes suggests you start incorporating a mental time limit for listening. Tell yourself that you’ll listen for five full, attentive minutes before moving on. To avoid sounding like a jerk, you can subtly introduce a time limit out loud so they know you’ll hear them out, but not to complain until armageddon arrives. For example, you can offer to listen while you make them a cup of tea on your break, or while you grab you both a snack. Or, better yet, diplomatically set a hard time limit outright by saying something like “Sure, let’s talk! I have to make a phone call/run a meeting/finish a report at [X time that’s five minutes from now] though, if that’s OK.” or “Let’s grab a coffee on the way to [location] and talk then,” and talk to the end of that coffee and then excuse yourself.
If you’re listening to your significant other or roommate vent (someone you know fairly well), you can give them something at the finish line to look forward to. Particularly something you know will cheer them up. For example, you could say “Tell me what’s going on and then maybe we can watch an episode of (their favourite TV show).” They will likely try to wrap up their story sooner so they can get to the fun stuff. June Cerza kolf, the author of How Can I Help?, also recommends incorporating some exercise so they can blow off some steam multiple ways. Offer to listen while you go for a walk, jog, or even between sets at the gym.
If someone you’re on good terms with is venting too often and it’s starting to affect you emotionally, Judith Acosta, the co-author of Verbal First-Aid, suggests you carefully draw the line. Acosta explains at Huffington Post:
In a healthier relationship, it would be possible to say, “When you complain about things and aren’t willing to do anything about them, it frustrates me. I want to help you, but I only see you going around in circles.”
It will be uncomfortable at first, and the venting person may feel momentarily wounded, but some healthy limits will be set. If their complaints are regarding serious issues, however, you should refer your friend to professional help. They may need someone who can really listen to them or offer tangible help where you can’t.
On the other hand, if you’re not close or on good terms with the person venting, Acosta notes that sometimes the only way out is usually to shut it down completely. It’s good to be nice and offer to listen, but it’s important to protect your own mental state when people try to take advantage of your kindness. Lastly, if you’re feeling a little taxed by the constant venting of friends and others close to you, don’t hesitate to get some help yourself.