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Solution-Focused Venting

In Part I of this series on what appears to be a pronounced taste for complaining, or “venting,” about frustrations among law enforcement officers (An LEOs Prerogative to Vent), we looked at both the causes and consequences of unfettered venting.  This month we’ll build off that groundwork laid by discussing key components to exercising the type of venting that allows you to preserve one of law enforcement’s more dubious, if occasionally fun, traditions.  We called it “the policeman’s prerogative to bitch” last month (in honor of a quote I still cannot attribute properly but if anyone can, please enlighten me), and you all know what we mean, but rather than letting complaining become a toxin to both you and your agency, the following principles will actually allow venting to be constructive, forward-looking, and emotionally healthy.

Venting is OK- sometimes – but not as your primary or sole communication mode

I should have known I was in for it when told who I’d be partnered with for the overtime assignment and all the detectives on the detail either snickered or expressed faux sympathy (“You poor, poor bastard…”).  “What?” I asked, only to be told, “Oh, you’ll see.”

And boy, did I ever.  What should have been four easy hours of roaming festival grounds, chatting and joking with concertgoers, and answering silly questions from lightly dressed, lightly inebriated women, all at time and a half, turned into the Bataan Death Bitch of “Detective Dirge.”  By Day 3 (okay, maybe it was about 90 minutes in but it felt like 3 days) I was homicidal.    

We all know a Detective Dirge, or Sergeant Sadsack, whose sole contribution to any conversation is a recitation of injustices visited on them by their superiors, subordinates, city council, citizens, etc etc…  Every conversation, no matter how it starts or the topic where it’s organically going, is steered back to their favorite vent. 

We all know that guy.  Let’s take care not to BE that guy.

Venting must always have a bigger “end purpose”

Whether it is to blow off steam, empathize with another going through a hard time or some injustice, solicit input or consensus from others, or to rally the troops toward change, venting must always serve a bigger ‘end purpose.”  Even if it is to blow off steam or offer empathy, and the end purpose is nothing larger than that, then venting has a purpose to serve.  But that end purpose has to have an end itself; once reached and accomplished, be done with it.

But if the venting has yet a larger purpose – to rally others toward making change (or possibly just driving yourself toward some change) or to find consensus or feedback about an issue – then the venting portion needs to end and the next stage to begin unless you want to stay stuck.  Most revolutions die of inertia brought on by an inability to move past the “talk, talk, talk” phase. 

Channel your venting energies   

To move past the “talk, talk, talk” phase previously mentioned, start structuring your thoughts into a plan to illuminate problems and become solution-focused.  Maybe your particular issue is very personal, such as career stagnation or an interpersonal conflict with another in the department:

The bile taste rose up again in the back of Jill’s throat as she read over her semiannual evaluation from Sgt Kinneally; “inconsistent work product,”  “average patrol officer, at best,” “needs significant improvement in current role before further career opportunities should be considered.”  No matter how many stellar reviews she got from other supervisors over the years, no matter all the glowing “attagirls!” from the dicks for her investigative skills, and no matter all the commendations she’d received over her career, nothing would matter until Kinneally accepted her.  He was the lieutenant’s best friend and closest advisor, after all, and he’d hated her since he first had to supervise “a broad?!?  On my squad?  You gotta be kidding me, right?” eighteen years ago. 

Jill may believe there’s no recourse.  She may feel venting is her only outlet and intend to do a lot of it to release the stress of Kinneally’s slights.  Or she may take a different tack and plot a strategy to confront – professionally, of course – Kinneally’s perceptions.

What if she were to enlist the assistance of another, more supportive supervisor or peer?  What if she were to appeal the review through formal channels, or write a rebuttal before signing off on it?  What if she were to ask for a transfer to a different shift or supervisor, if feasible?  There are any number of recourses she could employ - and they may not necessarily be successful, but merely venting isn’t going to change things – but they might be.  They may put Kinneally on notice and change or question his behavior.  They could shine a light on him with his bosses; and sometimes the bosses are not as blind to shortcomings as they may seem. 

Sometimes moving forward with a strategy is surprisingly productive.

Seek and use “change coalitions” to foster progress

These might include police unions, specific organizations or committees within your department or government, an employee ombudsman program, or similar. 

Many departments will even solicit employees across the ranks to take part in steering committees when they see the need to effect change department wide, under the idea that a coalition of different backgrounds will bring diversity of thought and opinion to the table.  If used correctly, these groups can be highly effective and give voice to a wide range of employees throughout a department.

Plus, if you step up to take part on them they offer you five distinct advantages:

  • First, no matter your rank or position in the organization, you can bring your experience, opinion, and expertise to the table in what is generally a small but powerful group that will have the ear of the traditional powers-that-be;
  • Second, you can raise your own visibility within the organization through face time and networking with formal and informal leaders and power structure;
  • Third, the face time and networking can extend your credibility and influence beyond the group and outward into the greater organization;
  • Fourth, even if you fail to accomplish all, or even any, of your original goals you can still be on the side of those who do, and sometimes the solution to unproductive venting is merely getting a concerned audience to hear you in the first place; and
  • Fifth, You will have the opportunity to have your voice and complaints weighed against the opinion and expertise of others who also have a stake in making positive change.  Sometimes informed listeners can support your ideas, concerns, and beefs, while other times they confront and correct errors in your thinking.  Both are good.

Get control of negative thoughts ASAP in order to control them

According to University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, once a negative thought begins we have only 60 seconds to get it under control.  Once the thought goes past 60 seconds it turns into an anxiety.  The source of so much of our venting comes from anxiety of some sort, and the fact it increases greatly when we feel we’re not being heard compounds it.  The venting is from frustration, sure, but isn’t it really from unresolved frustration?

Get control of negative thoughts – those thoughts that tell you nothing can ever change, that you really have no power or options, the Eeyore mantra of, “We’re all doomed” – fast, before they take root and sprout.  Start being solution focused immediately.

Leave your beefs at work

No matter what happens at work, develop the habit of leaving work worries at the door when you leave for home.  Taking them home affords you no relief, burdens your family and friends with problems they have even less power over than you, and provides no emotional delineation between your “on-duty” and “off-duty” selves.  Of course your family and friends want to listen and support you, and you should honor them and their willingness with your trust and openness, but do so sparingly.  Abuse the privilege and you might find yourself seeing less and less of them as they unconsciously flee. 

In next month’s column we will wrap up this series on the cop’s prerogative to vent with just one more simple, but crucial, step we have not yet described.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, STAY SAFE!


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.