I still remember how it felt when, as a medical student, I drained my first abscess in a patient. We called the procedure “I & D” which stands for “Incision and Drainage”.
When you do an I & D, you locate what is the most protruding and bulging part of the abscess, wipe it off with alcohol, than pierce it with a scalpel. At that point the pus comes out first, followed by any blood. After this procedure, you may put the person on an antibiotic. Over time, the wound heals from the inside out. If you don’t drain the abscess first, and just start with the antibiotics, the undrained pus may prevent the wound from healing.
Today as a practicing business psychiatrist and CEO advisor, I’ve noticed that when you’re faced with an upset customer, client, employee, shareholder, child, parent, spouse, friend, it can actually feel like they’re bulging with emotion and about to explode. Your instinctual and intuitive reaction may be to try to calm them down, urge them to cool off, suggest it’s not worth getting so upset about. And sometimes that may work. But in cases where they’re really upset, you may need to drain their emotional abscess just as you would have to do with a physical abscess. In those situations, asking them to calm down before they’ve vented will be about as useful as skipping straight to antibiotics before cleaning their wound.
And yet a lot of people don’t know how to listen to someone venting. Usually, people take one of two attitudes. Option 1 is to jump in and give advice — but this is not the same as listening, and the person doing the venting may respond with “Just listen to me! Don’t tell me what to do.” Option 2 (usually attempted after Option 1) is to swing to the other extreme, and sit there silently. But this doesn’t actively help the person doing the venting to drain their negative emotions. Consequently, it is about as rewarding as venting to your dog.
The way to listen when someone is venting is to ask them the following three questions:
1. What are you most frustrated about?
This is a good question because when you ask them about their feelings, it often sounds condescending. And if you start out focusing on their anger, it sounds as if you are coldly telling them to get a hold on themselves, which may work, but more often will just cause the pressure inside them to build up even more. However, asking them about their frustration is less judgmental and can have the same effect as sticking a scalpel into their abcess. Let them vent their feelings and when they finish, pick any of their words that had a lot of emotion attached. These can be words such as “Never,” “Screwed up,” or any other words spoken with high inflection. Then reply with, “Say more about “never” (or “screwed up,” etc.) That will help them drain even more.
2. What are you most angry about?
This is where their emotional pus drains. Again let them finish and have them go deeper by asking them, “Say more about _________ .” Don’t take issue with them or get into a debate, just know that they really need to get this off their chest — and if you listen without interrupting them, while also inviting them to say even more, they will. If you struggle to listen when someone is venting because intense negative feelings make you feel upset yourself, try this: Look them straight in the left eye (which is connected to their right emotional brain) and imagine you are looking into the eye of a hurricane, allowing whatever they’re yelling to go over your shoulders instead of hitting you straight in your eyes.
3. What are you really worried about?
This is like the blood that comes out of wound following the pus. It is as the core of their emotional wound. If you have listened and not taken issue with their frustration and anger, they will speak to you about what they’re really worried about. Again push them to go deeper by asking them: “Say more about ___________.” After they finish getting to the bottom of it, respond with, “Now I understand why you are so frustrated, angry and worried. Since we can’t turn back time, let’s put our heads together to check out your options from here. Okay?”
As I have written before, when people are upset, it matters less what you tell them than what you enable them to tell you. After they get their feelings off their chest, that’s when they can then have a constructive conversation with you. And not before.