Yes, go ahead and VENT….But please ask first!

A few days ago, while engrossed in a project at my desk, my phone rang. It was Dan, our middle son, who had just turned 21 last week.

He was calling from the DMV (KS Dept of Motor Vehicles) office where he’d gone to renew his driver’s license. Given his location, you can probably guess where this story is going.

With hardly a hello, he immediately launched into a loud rant about how stupid the DMV was. Apparently, the only form of payment he had was exactly the one they didn’t take. Of course, he didn’t find this out until he’d waited in line “forever”.

I was a bit taken aback by his call and must admit I was initially annoyed with the interruption. After all, what could I do for him?

In fact, the problem-solver side of me knew right away that I couldn’t help him. Unfortunately, I shared this with him in a way that I think made him feel a bit unloved, because he immediately backed off and said, “Hey, I just needed to vent a little bit.”

His telling me this, and his use of the word vent, immediately changed the context of the call for me. Instead of being an “interrupted business owner”, I instantly became a “caring father” who was ready to be quiet, just listen, and not try to fix things. I became the person I should have been as soon as my cellphone automatically announced who the caller was.

In reflecting later about it, Dan’s call suggested to me some important lessons about context and venting. Perhaps these ideas can help prepare you for your next encounter with venting:

  • Lesson #1 – If our context isn’t working for us and for others, then we should change it! Fortunately, this is a choice we can make in an instant…..anytime, any place. My switch to the role of “caring father” is what allowed the conversation to be of value to Dan. It served to build our relationship instead of eroding it.
  • Lesson #2 – Since context impacts our actions and emotions, an effective context is needed to create an effective conversation. As the “interrupted business owner”, my words and tone did nothing to help Dan.
  • Lesson #3 – All of us have a need to vent at certain times. When we’re in that mode, we don’t need the other person to try and fix things. Dan called me merely to blow off steam and empty out. He didn’t need anything else from me.
  • Lesson #4 – Recognize some of the typical warning signs of venting by others:  An immediate launch into the conversation with no setup or explanation, loud complaints, possible foul language and a high level of frustration. Noticing one or more of these may prompt you to see that the other person is simply venting. Then you can just relax and listen caringly, but quietly.
  • Lesson #5 – If we need to vent, I believe it makes sense to ask the other person for permission to vent with them. Do they mind? Do they have the time to just listen for a few minutes? This setup of the conversation lets both parties get ready mentally. They can each choose a context that will make the venting “work”.

“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk

Question: What context will you choose the next time a friend, family member or coworker has a need to vent?