When a 1:1 turns into a vent session

Jun 11, 2021 by Yihwan Kim. 7 min read.

I’m thankful this doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, a 1:1 — with a direct report, peer, or sometimes someone I’ve just met — becomes a vent session.

Everyone vents differently. Some speak quickly, some more loudly. Some immediately jump into a stream of consciousness while others start and stop, translating thoughts and processing emotions on the fly. Vent sessions can feel hot and angry, but they can also feel cathartic and liberating.

In any case, my reaction is always the same. When a conversation starts to turn into a vent, I stop — and I listen.

Don’t rationalize, and definitely don’t interrupt

As an engineering manager, I’m learning that a big part of my job (perhaps my only job) is to help people solve problems. I happen to enjoy solving problems myself. So it’s only natural that when someone starts venting, I want to rationalize the conversation, correct inaccuracies, and discuss actionable next steps.

I always have to remind myself: don’t.

In a vent session, the goal is not to problem-solve. Vent sessions can be emotional, and emotions aren’t always rational. If someone wants to vent, it’s usually because they have something to say, but feel like they aren’t being heard.

So I just listen. I hear what they have to say.

I learned early in my career (and life) that the one thing you definitely don’t want to do is interrupt, especially if it’s to make a correction. No matter how strongly you feel the venting person is operating under wrong assumptions, attempting to “set the record straight” can blow up in your face spectacularly. There are few things that make an emotional person more emotional than telling them they are wrong — and doing so can quickly put you on the slippery slope to a full-blown argument.

Another reason I don’t interrupt is because I have no idea where the vent session will go. Some have felt really intense for the first few minutes, only to slowly peter out on their own. It’s as if they’ve had these thoughts bouncing around their head for weeks, but suddenly hearing them out loud puts things in a new perspective.

The dynamics are admittedly different in group settings. It’s not that venting can never be productive in a group, but the considerations are different — and the risks are higher. But in the privacy of a 1:1, what’s the cost of listening?

Don’t assume — ask

Back when I thought I was going to be a lawyer a relative lifetime ago, I learned about the value of a well-framed question. I also learned not to assume.

Let’s consider a case where someone I don’t directly manage is venting about something. It might seem reasonable at some point to say “You should share this with your manager.”

But such a well-meaning and seemingly innocuous statement carries a number of assumptions: that they have not already shared this with their manager; that they feel comfortable sharing this with their manager — or anyone else for that matter; that sharing would solve the problem; that problem-solving is the right thing to do; and many more.

I don’t like to assume in any conversation, but I am especially mindful not to during a vent session.

Instead, I ask questions — either to confirm presumptions or discover new facts. When asking questions, I typically start open-ended before narrowing in. Such a line of questioning for this case might be:

  • Do you feel comfortable sharing this with others?
  • Have you shared this with anyone else?
  • Who have you shared this with?
  • Have you shared this with your manager?

More often that not, I don’t have to go much further beyond the opening question to answer the more narrow ones.

Don’t take a stance, but don’t be afraid to have opinions

I used to think I had to be completely neutral when someone was venting. The problem is humans aren’t neutral. And I’ve found that when I try too hard to be, I come across like an indifferent chatbot (and not a particularly intelligent one at that) — and people quickly lose interest in continuing the conversation.

It’s important not to take sides or fan the flames, but that shouldn’t inhibit your ability to engage in a human way. It’s okay to react; it’s fine to respond; and above all, it’s important to empathize. Sometimes, that means having opinions.

One day, I was paired with a non-engineering stakeholder for a 30-minute meet and greet. The meeting started leisurely, with a generic discussion of projects in-flight and handoff strategies. Then, she casually mentioned that she’d just completed a coding bootcamp while on the job.

“Oh that’s great!” I exclaimed. After all, I too had gone through a coding bootcamp, and while the industry is hardly perfect, it enabled me to jump into a new and fulfilling career path. “The bootcamp alone was tough” I observed, “I can’t imagine what it must have been like trying to balance a full-time job.”

Our conversation accelerated from there. Did I think it was worth it? Which stack did I learn? Was it relevant to the job? By now it had surfaced that we shared a strikingly similar career path, so: Did I ever want to go back to what I was doing before?

Of course, I had questions too: Did she want to become a software engineer? Perhaps she just wanted to learn to code? Had she been applying for jobs? Our engineering team had been hiring quite a bit, might she be interested in applying for one of our roles?

Finally: who had she shared this with? Pretty much everyone, she replied with a half-amused, half-resigned expression. Your manager? Yup. And what was their reaction? She exhaled and just shrugged, as if to say: meh.

“Oh that’s interesting!” I exclaimed. After all, I did think that was interesting, strange even. It would be as if I casually mentioned to my colleagues that I had just completed an accounting bootcamp and was met with nothing more than a nonchalant “Oh that’s nice, Yihwan.” That would be weird, right?

I was careful not to pry too deeply into what may or may not have been said with colleagues or managers. I realized that might lead me down the path to taking a stance, which is rarely productive in a vent session. Besides, in that moment, that wasn’t the important part. The important part was that she found this general lack of reaction interesting too.

After that, the floodgates opened. What was scheduled to be a 30-minute chat stretched into nearly 2 hours. I asked an open-ended question here and there, but mostly I just listened. I had opinions, yes, but I reminded myself to keep my opinions flexible and defer to hers if they ever conflicted. For example, had she said that attending a coding bootcamp was actually not that great or that her colleagues’ lack of reaction to her attending one wasn’t that interesting, I would’ve adjusted course to go with the flow.

By the end, I think we were both surprised that our chat covered so much ground, especially because this was the first time we met. “Wow, how did this happen?” she laughed. “No idea!” I replied, though we were both glad it did. This was the kind of vent session that felt cathartic, good even.

On my end, I was glad to have talked things out and made a new connection. Yet I also felt a faint sadness as I realized, though she never said so explicitly, she was already heading for the door — and there was nothing I could do.

Try to end on a positive note

I try to end all meetings on a positive note, and the same is true (especially true) for vent sessions. I keep my eye on the clock, and once we reach the 5 or 10 minutes to-go mark, I make every feasible attempt to gently nudge the conversation into a place where we might find even the smallest sliver of a silver lining.

I read the room to determine just how positive we could reasonably be. I don’t want to come off as facetiously chipper, especially if it’s clear the other person isn’t feeling that way. I try to meet them where they are.

If all else fails, I usually ask: “How do you feel now versus when we started talking?” Somewhat surprisingly, most people say they feel better. Some say they feel great having gotten something off their chest, while others say — while they don’t feel perfect — they’re at least glad they had a chance to talk. Sometimes, I’m met with a sigh, grunt, or “I don’t know,” which is usually a sign for me to ask if they’d be open to picking up the conversation soon. Most are.

If things feel good, this might be the time to start the problem-solving process — or revisit potential inaccuracies and assumptions. The goal is not to “set the record straight” but to align around a brighter picture than what the other person may have been imagining. We shouldn’t focus on the “right” or “wrong”, but rather suggest that hey, maybe things aren’t so bad as we thought they were.

Vent sessions can be messy, and they almost never wrap up perfectly. But throughout the conversation, I’m constantly asking myself: Is there anything that could make us optimistic? Is there anything that could give us hope?

Sometimes the smallest thing is all you need.

See if you need to follow-up

I say “see” if you need to follow-up, because not all vent sessions require one. Some people are just glad to get something out of their system and would prefer to move on with their life as if nothing ever happened. Also, I never assume that someone would actually want me to follow-up, which is why I always ask before doing something on their behalf.

Sometimes it makes sense to schedule a follow-up where you could start the problem-solving process, especially if you weren’t able to get to it during the initial vent. Regardless, I usually schedule a quick check-in, sometimes weeks away, if the other person is up for it.

I also mentally keep track of how often these vent sessions happen in the aggregate. Was this vent an isolated incident? Or is it starting to form a trend? This can provide important situational awareness on what’s happening in the organization as a whole. A sudden spike in vent sessions might be worth considering more holistically with other available information.

Some might say venting — or ranting, complaining, whichever word you prefer — is unproductive. I don’t think that’s true, especially when it happens in the privacy of a 1:1. If anything, it opens a window into what someone’s really thinking or how someone’s really feeling. While a vent session wouldn’t be my first choice to hear someone’s honest thoughts, I’d rather hear them than not.

Ideally you could catch things before they boil over. This might mean creating a strong intellectual safety net and an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions, expressing doubts, and challenging assumptions.

But even in organizations with strong intellectual safety nets, vent sessions still happen. That’s okay. It just means someone has something to say. You just have to listen.

Comments? Thoughts? Let me know! @yihwan 🐦

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