What to do when someone vents to you

When you find yourself in a situation where someone is venting about a problem or an issue they're having, it can be tempting to jump in with your own thoughts.
Usually, when someone is venting, they don't care what you think (even if they ask). What they care about is feeling seen, heard, and understood. They care about validation. When someone is in the headspace of venting, it's not the time nor place to coach them up or out of it. Trust me on this.
The next time someone vents to you, try this:
First, be fully present - let go of any judgment. Don't try to fix the issue with advice, don't add your opinion, and don't correct the speaker. Let go of any need to come up with an impressive response.
Second, repeat the essence (i.e. a key word or phrase) of their venting back to them as a question, followed by “Tell me more” or “How does/did that make you feel?”
Third, if they ask you for your thoughts or opinions up front, resist the urge! Instead, say “I'd love to really understand where you're coming from. Can you tell me a little more about [repeat the last thing they said] before I chime in?”
Continue this active listening approach until it's clear they've let it all out. At this point, respond with “How can I best support you right now?,” listen fully to their response, and reflect that back to them.
At first, it might feel awkward to hold a conversation this way, but remind yourself the goal is to help the other person feel seen, heard, and understood.
When coaching or working through issues with direct reports, I try to spend 75% of my words in the form of questions. I don't offer my thoughts or advice until it's clear the other person has fully shared everything on their mind and they're able to move into a collaborative, solution-oriented headspace.
When handled with Emotional Intelligence, allowing someone to vent their frustrations to you can be a healthy way to help them process fear, uncertainty, and stress. It's entirely possible to have these conversations without vindicating the other person (i.e. affirming their victimhood) or getting aggressive/defensive.
P.S. if you notice someone is using this approach on you while you're in the venting spotlight, relish it! The formula is pretty straightforward and easy to catch, but it always feels good to have your words reflected back to you.
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