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Processing vs Venting: How we speak to & about others when we have difficult feelings

Brad’s* comment made my blood boil. “You’re not even trying,” he had said about (according to him) my lack of initiative. In our meeting, he spoke very harshly and just sat there with his arms crossed and eyes lowered. I was trying hard to make eye contact, to connect and find a way forward – somehow with a shared goal or need – but it really didn’t matter. It felt like his mind was set. I was wrong; he was right.

When I came back to my desk, I was mad. As I put my notebook down, I looked at the preparation that I had done, making careful, detailed speaking notes, and I thought, “For what?” It went nowhere. Not one of the issues I wanted to talk about was addressed. Just as I opened my computer and sat down, Jess came back to her desk, and before she even got out the words, “How was your meeting with Br….” I launched into it. I released the emotional pressure valve and told her everything: his body language, his tone, his unwelcomed remarks, his brutal assessment of my work. As I spoke, I could feel my heart beating. My voice was shaking, and although tears weren’t at the surface now – shoot – they were


*Names and details have been changed to respect privacy

Can you tell when you’re processing something and when you’re venting? It’s an important difference and I think it matters when we’re trying to lead ourselves through a challenging situation.

The way we speak about those we are trying to work with and serve matters (tenants, clients, colleagues, etc.), especially when WE have difficult feelings.

Venting is reactionary; it’s at the surface and filled with emotion and stress responses. Processing has some perspective – some distance from the situation.

Venting is one-dimensional and operates like a fixed gear bike. Processing, however, is multi-dimensional and has a few other gears built in to slow us down as we navigate the terrain.

Don’t get me wrong – venting has a purpose. It’s a step in the “stress cycle,” but it doesn’t complete it and so there’s more work to do. According to Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book Burnout we need to attend to a few more things to help bring our nervous systems down after a challenging conversation, before we can start thinking properly.

I’ve been known to do any of the following after a difficult meeting:

  • Jumping jacks or shaking my body

  • Taking a walk around the block

  • Tensing every muscle in my body for a few seconds, then relaxing the muscles

When our nervous systems are hyped up from a challenging situation, it’s critical to recognize we’re jacked! And when we know that, we also know it’s not the best time to bring a bystander along for a ride through our stress cycle.

Venting might be needed as a first step in the stress cycle, but who is a good person to vent to? A co-worker? A person who is close to the person we had the conflict with? And… should it be done right after the difficult conversation? Nope. No. Nah.

It might help to speak to a close friend or someone completely unrelated to the situation – someone with no “skin in the game.” And this works better when we have taken some breathing space after the incident.

Also, writing in a journal can be a great outlet for venting – a tool to purge unfiltered thoughts and feelings so they don’t come out (accidentally) and hurt someone else. I can hold off blabbing if I know I’ll get time with my journal.

Processing is something we may start on our own, but it can include others. It can be done more safely when we understand the emotional hills we’ve climbed and descended and when we’re honest about how we’ve been impacted.

Venting is often about the other person and might sound like this:

  • “He said….”

  • “Then he said…and did this with his arms”

  • “He didn’t care what I had to say at all – he was so arrogant”

In contrast, processing is about me and uses ‘I’ statements, sounding more like this:

  • “I was caught off guard”

  • “I was really frustrated”

  • “I was deeply hurt by their comments”

One way we can serve those around us is to take care of our personal work. This means we take responsibility when we’re jacked, use tools to help bring us down, and use filters when we process with, not vent to, co-workers about our challenges.

Taking time to process, we can be respectful to a person we have conflict with, respectful to those we work with, and, most importantly, be respectful to ourselves.

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