Claudia and I have a deal. When she's really annoyed and needs to vent, she calls me. Beyond being a very close friend -- Claudia is one of my "Trust Tree" friends -- it's been our deal for 18 years. Our pact started because one afternoon, when things weren't going the way she wanted them to go she just let it rip. To my delight I discovered that when Claudia is all riled up, she's a bit like Jerry Seinfeld with a razor sharp wit but yet somewhat self-deprecating. After she had vented her frustrations, I was doubled over (from laughter). My laughing made her vent even more, and then "poof!" it was over and she felt much better. Of course not all venting can be funny. But I was onto something.
My experience with other friends was different. When they were upset, I'd immediately feel upset for them. I'd brace myself, start to do damage control because I never want any of my friends to be in pain. My default reaction was to "suit up," get on the white horse and find an answer to make everything better... and as quickly as possible! I'd argue with their feelings of pain or try to talk them out of it. I'd point out the positive side and give them clever solutions that, incidentally, they were not asking for. I'd make them laugh or try to cheer them up or somehow talk them out of feeling badly. Despite my best intentions, in that moment I was failing them. I was doing everything but what they really wanted, which was for me shut my mouth and to simply listen.
What? Just listen?!
Yes. Until I started coaching, I didn't understand the value or importance of letting someone vent. It turns out that giving the other person the chance to speak their mind and to talk through things that they perhaps weren't aware they were even thinking, while having you be totally present and listening to them is usually exactly what they need and want. I had unwittingly done this with Claudia, I listened with rapt attention as though my life depended on it, and she was able to get it out, calm down and ultimately work through her problem.
And save your "brilliant" advice, unless it's requested. But do ask thoughtful questions that can help them discover the deeper reason they are so upset. It gives them space to come up with solutions that make sense to them. And if you really want to help your friend even more you can ask them what or how questions (why questions generally create defensive answers). For example, "What makes you angry?" is different than "Why are you angry?" And asking, "What do you really want to do about it?" can give the person the opportunity to say what they truly want to do, instead of doing what they think they should do.
So the next time a friend comes to you wanting to vent, remember, you don't have to do the heavy lifting and solve their problem.
All you have to do is simply be present and listen.