While trying to think of ways to vent at work and make it productive — the idea came across as petty. I sure envy anyone who has never had to vent. I believe that it’s just a natural response to anything from unrealistic deadlines to handling toxic individuals. And, while it may feel cathartic at that moment — there’s an obvious dark side to any venting as well.
“Venting is kind of like an out-loud ruminating that can keep us stuck in negativity and the negative emotion longer rather than noticing it, letting it go and then being more solution-focused,” explains workplace psychologist Christine Allen told Moneyish. “In general … (complaining) tends to make people feel worse and not better. It tends to make the person that they’re complaining to feel worse as well.”
Moreover, because this can put us in a negative state, this adds stress — which is never good for your productivity and health. It can also put a strain on relationships and put your career in jeopardy. I mean, if you badmouthed employees or customers on social media, then why would they continue to support your business?
Even worse, venting can become addicting. “The more you vent, the more it becomes a habit,” wrote Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. in a previous Entrepreneur article. “When it becomes a habit, you’re acutely attuned to the negative things in life.”
“Since your brain is now more primed to register stressors, it is more challenging to appreciate the more calming or positive facets of work or life,” Dr. Greiner added. “Instead of letting stress become a habit or an addiction, you can choose what to focus on and what to talk about.”
On the flip side, getting something off your chest can also be a good thing. Here are six ways that you can productively use venting to your advantage.
1. Compose a “hot letter.”
You don’t have to be a history buff to know the impact that Abraham Lincoln had on the country. But, did you know about his “hot letters” method?
Whenever Lincoln got frustrated with someone, like General George Meade, he would compose an angry letter. However, he never sent the letter. Instead, he either burned it or filed it away so that there wouldn’t be consequences.
Here’s one example of such a letter he wrote after Meade disobeyed his orders:
“Maybe I ought not to be so hasty. It is easy enough for me to sit here in the quiet of the White House and order Meade to attack. Still, if I had been up at Gettysburg, and if I had seen as much blood as Meade has seen during the last week, and if my ears had been pierced with the screams and shrieks of the wounded and dying, maybe I wouldn’t be so anxious to attack either. If I had Meade’s timid temperament, perhaps I would have done just what he had done. Anyhow, it is water under the bridge now.”
Here’s what’s fascinating about Lincoln’s thought process here. Writing what he felt was a safe and healthy way to vent. More importantly, this allowed him to put himself in other’s shoes. In turn, this helped him develop empathy.
More recently, it’s been found that writing by hand is beneficial for both our body and mind. How so? Well, it can improve comprehension, unleashes creativity, eases anxiety, and enhances focus. Any journal writing seems to take the edge off of most things for me.
2. Take a walk.
You’ve probably come across this advice numerous times. But, there’s a good reason for it. Going for a walk outside allows you to back away from the situation and clear your head. Additionally, being surrounded by nature has a calming effect.
But wait. There’s more. Research shows that walking for just twenty minutes a day could lower your risk of developing depression by a third. It can also improve your overall cognitive function and decreases fatigue. Furthermore, a Stanford study found that walking increased a person’s “creative output” by an average of 60 percent.
3. Share your frustrations with a challenger-listener.
There aren’t too many times when venting can be helpful. However, research by Kristin Behfar, Ph.D., did find an exception, sharing your frustrations with a challenger-listener.
If you’ve dabbled in marketing, you may be familiar with the term. If not, here’s the jest. “In marketing, the idea of a challenger customer is that you don’t learn something from loyal customers who are already buying your products,” explained Behfar. “You learn from those who are resisting your strategy and rejecting your assumptions.”
“People really do believe that as listeners, they have to make people feel better. That’s just not true. There’s a big difference between being supportive and being helpful,” Behfar added.
“It’s counterintuitive and a little uncomfortable. When people come to us upset, our initial reaction is to comfort them. What we found across all our studies, no matter what you say, no one felt better. But you can help them solve a problem, which eventually leads to them feeling better,” she said.
“One reason why people vent so much is because it can be a good way of making sense of your problems,” Behfar continued. “You need to talk to other people to make sense of problems. It’s not an informal or formal grievance procedure.”
Unfortunately, most of us don’t seek these individuals out. We usually turn to those we trust. That’s a problem because they will only confirm our feelings.
Behfar recommends picking someone who can help reappraise the problem and shift preconceived notions. “The challenger listener gives you a jolt, a little nudge, to rethink,” she said.
Take a moment to think about why you are bugged about something. Take another moment to calm down. Take another moment to challenge your thinking. Find a friend or mentor who thinks differently than you do. Learn to respond to others in the way you want them to respond to you — and ask them to help you with your thought process.
4. Minimize your impact.
Growing up, I was close to my mom’s sister. As I got older, though, we drifted apart. There’s no bad blood or anything. It’s just that he’s a complainer and it got exhausting over time.
Before you vent, take a deep breath and think about the reputation you want to be known for. I’m sure a lot of words come to mind, such as “innovator” or “leader.” I doubt, however, that “complainer” is also included.
Additionally, studies have found that negativity is contagious. I don’t know about you. But, I don’t want to be dragged down by someone else’s pessimism.
Instead, when you do have to vent, Katie Douthwaite Wolf suggests doing “it with as little impact as possible.” That means not pestering the same person and reducing how often you gripe. Additionally, it’s making sure that you’re in a private setting.
“Or, create physical limitations for yourself,” adds Katie. “One of my co-workers and I, for instance, recently made a pact that we would only vent to one another if one of us physically walked over to the other person’s office, and we talked behind the closed door.” That’s effective since “this makes sure no one else overhears the venting.” And, “it really makes me think twice about each of my complaints—does this certain annoyance really warrant a trip to her office, where I’ll be distracting her from her work, just so I can vent?
It’s a simple approach. I’d also add that this may even give you more variety. Let’s say that you’re hung up on one particular issue, like dealing with unruly customers. Discussing this privately with different team members provides you diverse recommendations on how to address the matter.
I have learned something. Nothing makes a person angrier than to tell them to “calm down.” Another is, “lower your voice, please.” Merely continuing the conversation in a straightforward, non-threatening manner will usually accelerate your positive impact on the situation.
5. Balance the negative with the positive.
“In many (though not all) situations, it’s better for you to discharge negative emotions than to keep them bottled up inside,” explains Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D. “Whether it’s sorrow, anxiety, anger, or frustrations in general, repeatedly holding in what may need to come out has been related to compromised health—physical, mental, and emotional.”
In addition to the immediate relief you’ll feel, this helps restore your equilibrium. More importantly, you’ll be able to move on.
At the same time, you need to balance this with the positive. Through positive venting, you’ll be able to “release your frustrations productivity,” writes Lynne D’Amico in Force of Mind, Song of Heart: Shaping Consciousness, Connection, and Compassionate Cooperation. You’ll also be able to “deepen connections with others without having to criticize or make an absent person-object wrong.”
For example, maybe you have a team member who has trouble managing their time. While they are usually able to meet deadlines, there have been a couple of instances where they did not. Understandably, this made you angry. But, instead of belittling them, try to help them solve their time management problems.
6. Take action on solutions.
“Problem-solving makes you feel better, but getting things off your chest alone doesn’t make you feel better,” Behfar advises. So, whether you’re offering advice or soliciting it, have multiple solutions ready to solve the problem. After that, you need to take action. It’s a guaranteed way to avoid complaining just for the sake of it.
I know. That’s easier said than done. But, you could use this 10-step process from Brian Tracy to put your plans in motions:
- Change your language about the problem from negative to positive.
- Define the situation or problem clearly.
- Use critical thinking to approach the problem from several different directions.
- Clearly define the ideal solution to the problem.
- Pick the best solution to solve your challenge.
- Prepare for the worst possible outcome and how to overcome it.
- Measure your progress.
- Take complete responsibility for your decision.
- Set a deadline for when things should be solved.
- Take action and solve your problem.