Illustration of person sweating and looking exhausted as yelling mouths float around them
Illustration by Daniel Zender

How to Tell a Venting Friend 'Actually, You're the Jerk Here'

If your pal is railing about a conflict without seeming to grasp that they're at fault for it, here's what to say instead of, "Mm, yeah... you're so right..."
March 11, 2020, 3:49pm
Hard to Say is a column about delicate situations and difficult conversations, for people who wish they could hire a ghostwriter for all their texts.

We’ve all been this guy before—listening as a friend vents endlessly about a situation where they are 100 percent in the wrong. Maybe they are clearly pissing off their boss, being nasty to another friend, or engaged in seemingly endless conflict with the people they are kind-of dating… all while complaining about how their life is so unfair and Why can’t I just get a break?

It’s fairly exhausting to listen to someone vent non-stop even when they have a perfectly good reason to be upset. When the person is actually to blame for the situations, it’s basically intolerable.

But when someone is behaving in a way that is egregiously wrong or that really violates the social contract, it can actually feel harder to confront the behavior. There’s often a feeling of, This is so obviously out of line and this person doesn’t seem to notice or care… perhaps *I* am the one who is wrong?

But you’re probably not wrong!!! (And as long as you’re sincerely thinking about the issue from all angles and attempting to act in good faith on behalf of everyone involved, you're OK to proceed.) Being a good friend doesn’t mean you have to listen to them grouse like this forever.

If your friend is shouting through the bars of a jail cell of their own making, here’s what to do.

Accept that yeah, you should probably say something.

When someone is acting like an ass, it’s easy to tell yourself that it’s not your place to say something. Like, Yeah we’re friends, but we’re not *best* friends. Or, Yeah we’re best friends, but I’m not their *partner*. If you really don’t want to have a hard conversation, you can find endless reasons why it’s not your responsibility to be The One Who Says Something.

But consider the alternative: perhaps you should be The One. We live in a society, and we’re all responsible for gently telling people when they are acting obnoxious. Therapist Ryan Howes put it to me this way when I interviewed him for my book: “As a friend, it’s important to step in because people can be so unaware of what they’re doing. A big part of our job as friends or in any relationship is to hold a mirror up sometimes.”

Being your friend’s mirror isn’t particularly fun… but neither is being the pillow they are screaming into. No matter how you slice it, this situation isn’t going to be enjoyable for you, so you might as well try dealing with it directly—at least that option includes the possibility that things will actually get better.

Let tone and body language do some of the talking.

If the conversation is happening in person, you can say a lot through your tone and body language. When the person says something particularly off-base, don’t nod in agreement; instead, let yourself grimace, wince, or cringe. If they’re really on one, they might not notice (or will pretend not to)… but in my experience, this when they’ll probably begin to get the sense that you think they’re being kind of an asshole. (If they are ever going to get it at all.) They might even say, “Do you think I’m being an asshole?” Which brings us to...

Keep your judgment in check while telling them that you don’t agree.

Instead of “Oh, totally”-ing your friend in the moment (while silently rolling your eyes, or thinking about how you’re going to talk shit about them to a third party later), just… say something! Keep your tone measured and fairly neutral; while your friend probably should feel a little bit embarrassed by their behavior, aggressively shaming them isn’t going to help. If they are feeling attacked and defensive, they aren’t going to be able to really internalize what you’re saying.

Let's say your friend is venting non-stop about a third party, Tyler. Tyler is definitely in the right.

Here’s what you could say to your friend:

“I actually see Tyler’s point.”

“Hm… I actually don’t think [thing your friend is saying/doing] is totally fair.”

“If I can be honest, I actually think you should listen to what Tyler is saying.”

“Hm, I can actually see where they are coming from on this.”

“I actually don’t think what Tyler is [doing/saying] is that crazy.”

“I think if I were in Tyler’s position, I’d probably be pretty upset too, to be honest.”

In my experience, a calm response like this acts like a cooling balm on their heated spirit, and they’ll pause and ask you why you think that. And if they dismiss you entirely without hearing you out, well… that tells you a lot about your friend.

If the friend is doing something really egregious, lean into your negative reaction.

Sometimes, it makes more sense to avoid the really grave “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” tone, and go for a response that’s both light and also blunt. Instead of trying to communicate “This is Serious,” you can aim for a breezier “Holy shit, your behavior is so bad, this isn’t actually that deep!” When someone’s POV is fundamentally not up for debate—because it’s racist, misogynist, actually a crime in some states, etc.—you don’t have to treat it as valid.

So, that might sound something like:

“Wait—what? That’s an incredibly [unprofessional/mean/weird/fucked up/out of line] thing to [say/do] to [your boss/your partner/your ex/the person who is presently upset about your friend’s repeated microaggressions]. You’re lucky they aren’t [firing you/dumping you/calling the cops on you].”

If you can’t be honest for some reason, at least absolve yourself of the need to be a good audience.

While I always advocate for being direct with people, there will be instances where it’s just not possible. Maybe you’re dealing with someone who is senior to you at work, or your partner’s parent is the unrepentant asshole. Perhaps you’ve got a long-game plan for dealing with the person (like you’re secretly cooperating with the Feds, who are currently building a case against them), and are just trying to keep the peace in the short term.

If, for whatever reason, you feel like you truly can’t be real with the person, it’s in your best interest to become way less “fun” to vent to. The venter is most likely seeking validation from someone who is willing to mirror their emotional intensity; if you aren’t up for doing that, they will probably start to get the hint and seek out people who are more amenable to gassing them up.

If you want/need to engage with the venter less, here are some ways to respond to their endless complaints:

“Oof, that’s rough.”

“Hmmm…. I’m not really sure what to make of that.”

“I’m not sure what to think.”

“Yeah, I don’t know.”

“Yeah, that’s tough.”

While these phrases aren’t a direct “Yikes, I could not agree with you less,” they also aren’t a clear, “Wow, yes, you are totally in the right here”—which is sometimes the most you can do.

Let go of the need to convince your friend that they are in the wrong.

Yes, telling your friend you disagree is important… but you don’t actually have to change their mind. Realizing this is actually quite freeing, especially if you’re the kind of person who feels like they need to compile a 15-slide presentation backing up your stance before you’re allowed to tell someone you disagree with them. Ultimately, it’s your friend’s life, and if they want to behave in a way that is clearly destructive, well… fine? They’ll come to their senses eventually, perhaps after they experience real consequences (getting fired, getting dumped, etc.). Or maybe they won’t! Some people will triple triple-down and simply never admit they are wrong, and you get to decide if you want to stay close to those people.

In the meantime, you’re officially off the hook for listening to them vent! You’d be well within your rights if you said something like...

“I’ve told you how I feel about this, so I’m not sure what you want me to say here.”

“I think you know how I feel about this, so can we please table this subject for the foreseeable future?”

“Hey, I don’t think we’re ever going to see eye to eye on this, and I’m finding these conversations pretty draining. Can we change the subject?”

Don’t “solve” the problem by replicating it.

It makes sense that you would want to vent to other people about your complaining friend—it feels good to be able to say what you’re really thinking to someone, and a third party will presumably either validate your frustration, or tell you that you’re off base.

But venting about every conversation you have with the obnoxious friend causes a few problems: First, it can trick you into thinking you’re solving the problem, when you’re actually just spreading the negativity—your friend’s and now your own—around. You’re also doubling the amount of time you spend thinking about it; to paraphrase @dril, you’re giving yourself brain damage by pissing yourself off.

Sure, it’s satisfying to say these things out loud to someone… so now imagine how great it would feel to say everything (in a more considerate form, of course!) to the person who actually needs to hear it.

Finally, by complaining to your other friends non-stop, you become that which you hate—now you’re the one venting non-stop about a situation instead of acknowledging your own agency or doing something to fix it. Sure, you might think the third party you’re unleashing on is totally fine with this and perhaps even likes it... but that’s surely what the complainer is thinking about you, too.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever talk with a third person about this stuff… but try to exhibit a little more self-awareness than the person you’re complaining about right now.

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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.