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Is Venting Over Drinks With Coworkers Helpful or Hurtful?

Don’t let happy hour ruin your work relationships.

by Heather Morrison
January 14, 2020 | Work

It’s only Wednesday. The week feels like it’s dragging by. So, you and your coworkers decide to hit up happy hour.

But what was supposed to be a fun outing turns into a massive vent sesh — can you believe so-and-so scheduled another meeting that could’ve been an email?

“It can easily turn into a full-on therapy session when a therapist isn't present,” said Lizzie Post, co-president of etiquette consultancy The Emily Post Institute.

We all need to vent every now and again. But there are guidelines that can help you from hurting everyone’s morale.

Do you actually feel better after venting?

Short answer: No.

“While venting may make us feel good in the moment, studies indicate that verbalizing your anger doesn’t actually make us feel better,” said Jacinta Jiménez, psychologist and executive leadership coach.

It can actually cause you more stress, said Jenn DeWall, a career and lifestyle coach for millennials.

“It’s one of the fastest ways to increase your own stress and make yourself hate your life,” she said. “When you're done, you're just like, ‘Well, this sucks.’ And that's how you start to look at your job. And the more you do it, the more you hate your job.”

But it’s more complicated than just swearing off future venting.

Studies looking at “co-rumination,” or venting, have found that it strengthens friendships and is essential to them, according to Quartz.

“It’s important to have people in our circle who trust and understand us,” Jimenez said. “In fact, studies have found that women who have support networks are more successful.”

Instead of quitting venting cold turkey, evaluate the who, what, when, where and why of your venting.

[ICYMI: Why Is it So Hard for Adults to Make Friends?]

Venting 101

First, set boundaries and voice them early on.

“Try to pick one thing that you're going to vent about,” Post said. “Just say that you need get this off your chest and stick to just getting that off your chest.”

And when you start down the inevitable rabbit hole of complaining, set a time limit, DeWall said. If that doesn’t work, speak up.

Post suggests saying something like, “I really want to have fun with everyone tonight; do you mind if we each say one more thing and then change the topic?”

An illustration of coworkers venting over a glass of wine. Rewire PBS Work Venting
Venting about work, at least once in a while, is a must. But make sure you trust the coworkers you're venting to.

It’s likely everyone will agree it’s time for a more uplifting conversation.

Also, ask yourself: Is this venting or gossip?

“Venting is almost always OK if it’s not personal — if it’s about a process,” said Brandon Smith, therapist and executive coach known as The Workplace Therapist.

Venting about someone might actually be workplace gossip, while venting about a process at work might let you know you’re not alone in that feeling or allow someone to provide some insight and tips.

And never vent to coworkers about your boss or other leadership, especially in a setting where you could be overheard.

“Nothing good can come about from that,” Smith said.

Best-case scenario: Your reputation gets damaged. Worst-case scenario: You lose your job.

The right atmosphere for venting

Venting to just anyone, anywhere could get you in trouble.

“These are people that you work with,” Post said. Don’t act in ways “that you would feel embarrassed about the next morning.”

First, Smith suggested, make sure you're talking to someone you trust.

“If you've only worked with the person for three months, I wouldn't start complaining about another person in the office because you don't know who they know,” he said.

While you might want to talk to someone who’ll side with you, try to find someone who won’t.

“It’s also important to divulge to someone who can give you honest feedback,” Jiménez said. “Not just someone who is going to agree with all your complaints no matter what.”

In the end, it might be best to talk with someone you don't work with. Non-work friends won’t tell your boss what you said, and they’ll let you get your issues off your chest without piling on.

“When (people) have the shared experience, that's more than likely going to turn negative because you're going to build off of that,” DeWall said. “You're both going to live in your pain and only make it worse.”

But it’s not just about the people. Where you're hanging out can matter, too.

Try to find a place with other activities, like trivia night or bowling.

It's easier to invite non-work friends to activities like that, and that's a plus, DeWall said.

“That's the fastest way to say, ‘Hey, Jody over here doesn't work with us, so we can’t only talk about work,’” she said. “There's always that default lifesaver that you can bring in.”

What if you’re not the problem?

You might’ve really needed a fun night out, but the conversation seems to always turn negative.

The first step in turning the night around is to acknowledge your coworker’s frustration, Smith said.

“Say, ‘I totally get it. That sounds frustrating,’” he said. Suggest they talk to the person they’re frustrated with.

Or try changing the subject altogether.

DeWall suggested saying, “‘Hey, you guys, we worked all week. The last thing that I want to do is talk about work. Can we talk about something else?’”

Or you can simply leave.

Whatever your method, Post said, be confident.

“I think a lot of people mess up when they feel really nervous,” she said. “Like they don't feel they can just exclude themselves from the conversation.”

You always have permission to do what’s best for you, she said.

Venting can be positive

Venting doesn't have to be a negative thing.

“If we can find a way to be happy, be playful about our work situation, then that can take another form of venting but it can be healthy,” Smith said.

Basically, Marie Kondo your conversations: Ask if it's bringing you joy in some way, even if you're venting, he said.

That kind of venting is far more likely to bring you workplace friendships.

“Feeling a sense of that connection with people we work with, it's really important to us," Smith said.

And having that connection center around positivity helps everyone.

“We want to find ways where we can be playful with each other and laugh with each other and enjoy each other's company and get to know each other,” he said. “That helps to reduce our anxiety and stress at work.”

Heather Morrison
Heather Morrison is a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles. She reports on religion and disability rights. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for photos of her dog.
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