When your friend wants to vent after an exasperating divorce-related experience, it’s not only understandable, but necessary. A traditional African proverb says, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” When you provide a safe, objective space to vent, you help your friend protect his or her “grass” – whether that’s the children, mutual friends, extended family, or his or her own emotional and physical well-being.
Because it’s likely your friend will not be at his or her best when venting, here are some ideas to help you be a more skillful, compassionate listener.
- Offer Validation. Validation does not mean that you agree with the vent. Validation simply affirms your friend’s feelings and perceptions, and expresses understanding. Some fear that validation will only encourage and amplify the nasty. More often, however, skillful validation helps defuse emotional upset. When someone feels genuinely heard, there is no longer a need to crank up the volume. As your friend feels affirmed he or she will begin to calm down and return to a wise mind and a more reasonable response to the situation.
- Turn to wonder. It can be tempting to offer advice; however, it’s generally more helpful to ask thoughtful questions. Your friend likely knows how to solve the situation and needs you to ask questions that help access what he or she already knows and turn venting toward constructive action and away from regrettable reactions.
- Care for yourself. Your friend’s need to vent may not always be timely for you. It’s o.k. to set boundaries with your friend that allow you to care for yourself and protect the relationship. Three simple guidelines for setting an effective, yet caring boundary are:
- Offer validation.
- Offer your limit.
- Offer an alternative.
For example, if your friend calls to vent when you aren’t available to listen, you may need to say, “I understand that this is upsetting to you, and it’s important that we find a time to talk. At the same time, I’m not available right now because I’m having dinner with my family. Could I call you back in an hour when I can give you my undivided attention?”
Facilitating a good vent for your friend can help him or her maintain dignity with others in the places that matter deeply. Doing it skillfully also protects the relationship with you. Maybe you can’t always keep the elephants from fighting, but you sure can help protect the grass.