How to turn workplace venting into productive problem-solving

How to turn workplace venting into productive problem-solving

“Have you seen the new travel policy?” your colleague asks, clearly agitated. “Talk about condescending. It’s like they don’t even trust us to ride the elevator without permission!”

You have seen the new policy, in fact, and have been concerned about getting vouchers done on time. You are about to vent your own frustration when something makes you pause.

This scene (in countless forms) plays out many times every day in the working world. Nearly everyone has done some venting after dealing with an inconsiderate coworker, a short-sighted boss or a bureaucratic mess. And most of us have also been on the receiving end of someone else’s venting.

Why not vent? It feels good to be heard. It feels good to have a sense of camaraderie in shared pain. It feels good to lay our burdens at someone else’s feet. And isn’t it a good idea to release pressure from a tense situation?

Well, no. Deep down we know those feelings of camaraderie don’t last. And we know venting doesn’t actually improve the underlying situation. There is evidence to show that far from easing emotional tensions, venting actually increases stress.

Venting makes for a less effective workplace, too. It implies there is only one point of view to be considered. It presumes conflict and aggression are the natural order of things. And it discourages exploration of options to address problems.

Tips to turn venting into productive problem solving

If you are feeling the need to vent, here are three steps to gain control and move toward building genuine feelings of camaraderie and hope:

  1. Write a letter… and then tear it up

    When President Abraham Lincoln felt particularly frustrated by someone, he wrote what he called a “hot letter” pouring out his anger at the person. Then he burned the letter or filed it away. Venting into an unsent letter gave him an emotional outlet without collateral consequences and helped clarify his thinking.

    If you normally prefer digital writing, I recommend switching to pen and paper for the purpose of venting. Writing long-hand provides a greater release. And afterwards, tearing up your own angry handwriting provides a powerful symbolic message to your brain.

  2. Seek support from a colleague but leave room for disagreement

    Sometimes a “hot letter” will not be enough. You will want dialogue. Unfortunately, when dialogue turns into venting, you implicitly expect the other person to agree. To preserve space for a new perspective, be explicit from the outset that you want to hear your colleague’s point of view even as you talk through your frustrations.

  3. Ask your colleague for feedback

    Venting is firmly rooted in the past. Asking for feedback of even an imperfect plan turns your mind toward the future. For example, in the scenario above you could ask, “Should I just tell HR that the new travel policy is awful?”

Tips to help someone else move past venting

If you are on the receiving end of a venting session about a third party’s actions, try the following steps:

  1. Declare your support as a friend and colleague independent of the issue

    When a frustrated colleague wants to vent about another person’s actions or about another department, it is tempting to respond with sympathy and commiseration immediately. That is usually what the colleague wants, after all. And you may very well agree with the views expressed. But to turn venting into problem solving, separate emotional support from the issues.

    In the travel policy scenario above, you can say something like: “I totally understand why a change in the travel policy would be a big deal for you and your team. You all travel a lot. I want you to know I’ve got your back in figuring things out, however I can help.”

  2. Defuse superlatives

    Venting often includes or implies extreme statements. Superlatives such as “always” and “never” are common to venting because they deflect responsibility from the speaker and let her off the hook for change.

    When you hear these phrases, or sense them lurking under the surface, ask your colleague if she can think of any situations where the situation has been or could be different. If you feel your question may be perceived as criticism, explain you are asking only because you want to make sure you understand the scope of the issues.

    For example, in the travel policy scenario above, you could ask, “Is there any part of the policy that stayed the same in terms of traveler approval levels?” Regardless of the answer, you have changed the orientation of the conversation away from hopelessness and toward solutions.

  3. Ask probing questions to find the “Third Story”

    To move into problem-solving, explore what conflict negotiation experts call “the Third Story.” Essentially, you take on the role of an informal mediator between your colleague and the absent party.

    The Third Story is that version of the facts both sides could agree on. You begin to reveal it by summarizing what you understand the person venting believes, and then ask for verification. After your colleague says you understand his point of view, ask what he thinks the other party believes, including goals and objectives.

    If your colleague slips into venting, ask questions to explore what evidence leads to those conclusions, testing to see if they are consistent and realistic. In the travel policy scenario, you could ask, “What changes give the impression that management doesn’t trust employees?”

    Finally, discuss how to move from the Third Story to a mutually agreeable course of action. If you feel inspired, you can offer a trial balloon idea for critique. Encourage your colleague to poke holes in your suggestion, so long as he agrees to offer refinements that would work better.

Although reframing venting into positive problem-solving takes work, it allows people on the front lines of an issue to focus improvement where points of greatest conflict exist (as evidenced by the desire to vent). More importantly, it brings greater satisfaction and collaboration to all teams.

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