How Good Listening Benefits Workplace Venting

Topic(s): coaching, training
Publication: Academy of Management Discoveries
Article: Realizing the upside of venting: The role of the “Challenger Listener”
Authors: K.J. Behfar, M.A. Cronin, K. McCarthy
Reviewed by: Julian B. Allen

Employees often respond to the frustrations of a long workday by venting. However, is venting really effective? New research (Behfar, Cronin, & McCarthy, in press) explains the value of venting beyond its immediate emotional release. The authors say that past research is largely pessimistic on the value of venting to express anger. This is because frustration does not provide relief and can potentially make the situation worse. Instead, the researchers explore the role of the listener, and explain how certain listeners can add value by helping venters solve their problems.


Across three research studies, the authors demonstrated that listeners play an essential role in venting. In the first study, through a survey conducted with a group of nurses, the findings show that venters are better off when a listener attempts to challenge the venter’s current perspective. Listeners who attempt to confirm current feelings or provide support increased the venter’s likelihood of continued rumination about the issue. On the other hand, listeners who focus on problem-solving or gaining new insight decreased the venter’s rumination on the issue. The researchers call these problem-solving listeners “challenge listeners,” as they contest the venter’s original approach. However, interestingly, nurses responding to this survey indicated that they infrequently select challenge listeners and instead hold a preference for a supportive and trustworthy listener.

In an attempt to replicate the value of the challenge listener, study two asked what type of listener response is most beneficial. The researchers ran the experiment using undergraduate students and again found that the problem-focused response was most beneficial to venters. This was instead of responses that attempted to elaborate on the current issue, emphasize the venter’s resilience, or offer empathetic support. This supported the idea that the challenge listener is most beneficial for venting.

Having identified the value of the challenge listener, the researchers turned to explore the venter’s willingness to accept the challenge listener’s suggestions. In study three, the researchers designed an experiment where the listener offered suggestions in an emotionally supportive manner (“I understand how you feel”) or emotionally unsupportive manner (“You are overreacting”). The researchers were surprised by the results. Venters were more likely to accept the challenging ideas of listeners when they were offered in an emotionally unsupportive style, compared to when they were offered in an emotionally supportive style. 


Although venting may not be inherently beneficial, as argued by the researchers in this study, venting is prevalent in workplaces and we are unlikely to stop or dissuade employees from venting. Thus, the researchers instead suggest training employees on effective venting and listening. Organizations can also train venters to select listeners whom might challenge the current perspective. With this training, venters must be recalibrated to view venting as an opportunity to gain new insight, instead of venting just to feel better. Further, the researchers suggest training listeners to become challenge listeners by demonstrating the difference between suggesting solutions and providing mere emotional support. 


Behfar, K. J., Cronin, M. A., & McCarthy, K. (in press). Realizing the Upside of Venting: The Role of the” Challenger Listener”. Academy of Management Discoveries, online first, June 2019.