6 ways to make workplace venting productive

Write a ‘hot letter,’ take a walk before responding, and balance out the negative with some positives.

Making the most of workplace conflict

Venting at work is natural and certainly understandable. But you must be smart about how, when and where you blow off steam.

“Venting is kind of like an out-loud ruminating that can keep us stuck in negativity longer rather than noticing it, letting it go and then being more solution-focused,” explains workplace psychologist Christine Allen. “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.”

Aside from harming productivity and even your health, inappropriate venting can strain important relationships and put your career in jeopardy. It can even be addictive. “The more you vent, the more it becomes a habit,” writes Nadine Greiner, Ph.D., in Entrepreneur. “When it becomes a habit, you’re acutely attuned to the negative things in life.”

Of course, getting something off your chest can also be a good thing. Here are six ways to use workplace venting to your advantage.

1. Compose a “hot letter.”

Most Americans can name some facts about Abraham Lincoln. But did you know about his “hot letters”?

Whenever Lincoln got frustrated with someone, such as General George Meade, he would compose an angry letter. However, he wouldn’t send the screed. Instead, he either burned it or filed it away.

Here’s one example of a note 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.”

Lincoln’s venting offered a healthy release of stress and emotion. He also gained empathy, perspective and understanding as he wrote.

The next time you’re upset with someone, channel your inner Lincoln by pouring your emotions onto the page. Just don’t hit “send.”

2. Take a walk.

Before you go off on a workplace troll, go for a stroll.

Taking time outside allows you to compose yourself and clear your head. Being surrounded by nature has a calming effect, too.

But wait. There’s more. Research shows that walking for just 20 minutes a day could lower your risk of developing depression by a third. It can also improve your overall cognitive function and decrease fatigue. Furthermore, a Stanford study found that walking increased a person’s “creative output” by an average of 60 percent.

If you feel compelled to vent, consider lacing up those walking shoes first.

3. Share your frustrations with a challenger-listener.

Research by Kristin Behfar, Ph.D., found that sharing your frustrations with a challenger-listener can be beneficial.

Here’s the gist. “In marketing, the idea of a challenger-customer is that you don’t learn something from loyal customers who are already buying your products,” explains Behfar. “You learn from those who are resisting your strategy and rejecting your assumptions.”

She continues: “ 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.”

“One reason why people vent so much is because it can be a good way of making sense of your problems,” Behfar writes. “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.

Before you vent, 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 on the list.

When you feel compelled to vent, Katie Douthwaite Wolf suggests doing it “with as little impact as possible.” That means not pestering the same person repeatedly–and possibly reducing how often you gripe. Also,  make sure you’re in a private setting.

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 must balance out negativity by emphasizing positive emotions. For example, maybe you have a team member who has trouble managing their time. Perhaps they are usually able to meet deadlines, but recently they’ve slipped. Understandably, this made you angry. But, instead of belittling them, try to help them solve their time management problems.

6. Take action.

“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 must take action. It’s a guaranteed way to avoid complaining just for the sake of it.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. If you’re not sure where to start, use this 10-step process from Brian Tracy to put your problem-solving 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.

Deanna Ritchie is editor-in-chief of Calendar.


Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.