“I Have to VENT!” As Nurses, Are We Letting Off Innocent Steam or Fueling Lateral Violence?

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I have to say that venting does feel good sometimes, yet intuitively,  I feel a little unprofessional too.  In our high-stress, high stakes profession it makes sense that letting off steam could be a good thing. On the other hand, venting has some negative energy in my opinion.  Ultimately, I think the risks outweigh the benefits and that there are more appropriate means of seeking support at least most of the time.

Maybe, if we are mindful of some contraindications regarding venting, we can minimize inappropriate occurrences or some problems that can arise from them.  Consider this hypothetical situation involving three staff nurses, Mary, Annie and Jen.  Jen is 10 minutes late getting back from lunch, and it is the second time in the past few days that Annie has covered for her.  Jen was a few minutes late that time, too.

“Mary, OK if I vent?” asks Annie.
“Sure,” says Mary.
“Where is Jen?  She should have been back by now!  I am so sick of her taking her sweet time at lunch.  I end up taking care of her patients, and I get backed up and don’t have time for my own lunch.  UGH, I could just scream. I hate covering for her!”
Just then, Jen steps out of the elevator.  Annie gives  her a dirty look and a brief report using an angry tone.  Annie gives report to Mary and takes a short lunch to try to catch up with her work.  Jen shrugs her shoulders and goes about her business.

Here are some concerns I have with this kind of communication:

Avoiding Direct Feedback?

First, Annie’s venting enabled her, (at least to some extent) to avoid offering direct, and perhaps, constructive feedback to Jen. Annie gets some validation for her feelings and an opportunity to discharge some emotional energy.  Jen gets a cold shoulder and little opportunity to learn how her behavior is impacting Annie.
Creating Negative Alliances?

Second, venting has the potential to create negative alliances.  Annie is really irritated at Jen and shares her frustrations with Mary.  Annie and Mary now have a secret connection that involves Jen, but Jen doesn’t know it.  This gets woven into the relationships of the team and can lead to presumptions, ganging up, or other unhealthy dynamics.


Missing Opportunity for Self Reflection?

Third, if Mary allows Annie to vent about Jen, then Annie may be off the hook for considering any part that she plays in the conflict.  Annie is giving up her full meal break and blaming Jen.  This may be part of a deeper issue for Annie to reflect on in terms of asking for help, setting limits, or even some secondary gain related to being a martyr.  It may be easier for her to avoid reflecting on her own behavior, but she is not showing any ownership.

Truth or Truths Remain Hidden?

Fourth, in this scenario, Jen’s side of the story doesn’t surface.  Perhaps her watch is slow, the nurse who oriented her told her that it was acceptable to take a 30-40 minute lunch if she missed her morning break, or she wasn’t paying close attention to the time she left.  Granted, Jen could offer an apology and explanation on her return and this, too, would contribute to a more collaborative culture.

Loss of Opportunity to Problem Solve Underlying Issues?

Last, the learning opportunities lost by not having a dialogue about this issue may keep the team and organization from identifying and addressing underlying issues, such as staffing, quality and safety.  Maybe a longer lunch option would make more sense on this unit, perhaps Annie and/or Mary will hesitate to talk with Jen about another issue, or maybe an opportunity for an improvement in the cafeteria’s workflow will be missed.


These concerns are contributing factors to horizontal violence and keep us in a stuck in a cycle of negativity.  This reflects back on individuals, organizations and our profession!  They also keep us from collaborating effectively and providing safest care.

Giving feedback requires skill and courage and is critical to effective teamwork and collaborative efforts.  Maybe there are times when a patient or colleague is driving you crazy and you just need to let off steam, or maybe the organizational culture doesn’t feel safe for giving direct feedback or maybe the level of communication you have is so healthy that the above are not concerns.  Still, we may be loosing more than we gain by allowing venting.

What are your thoughts?  Feel free to challenge my thinking.  Communication is often filled with gray areas!  beth@bethboynton.com.



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6 Responses to “I Have to VENT!” As Nurses, Are We Letting Off Innocent Steam or Fueling Lateral Violence?

  1. Pingback: Constructive Feedback Training and Practice: Key for Nurse Managers, Preceptors, & Teams

  2. JudyRinger says:

    Great post, Beth. Thank you for sharing so succinctly the dangers and losses that accrue when we “innocently” vent to friends and coworkers. I know — it does feel good. And… your thoughts help us to stop and think before unloading. Many thanks.

  3. Direct Dialogue.
    Gosh I would just love it if I could have actually done this with the nurses I worked with.
    When I tried this, their reactions were often defensively getting loud and either degrading me or attempting to make others think I was somehow attacking them.
    Perhaps my youth caused me some of this frustration. But the general tone of the floor I worked on was one of avoiding any conflict and being non-confrontational. I, however, take things head one and confront issues to get them out of the way.
    Guess that’s why I moved on.

    • admin says:

      I hear you and totally understand. You know, it is tough if not impossible to practice healthy communication in a toxic environment. I mean you can try and did, but when there is so much opposition, it can be exhausting and without leadership support, extremely difficult to impact. What happens when you put an assertive person in an aggressive or passive-aggressive or passive environment? I think it is fascinating to think about a relativity of assertiveness. I’m not sure we can be assertive in environments that don’t support it. I’ve experienced similar frustrations. I haven’t always been assertive, but as I have grown, could see how unwelcome assertiveness my new skills have been at times.

      I’m glad you moved on, but still sorry for the dysfunctional dynamics you experienced. Their loss and I suppose in a way you do impact the culture on some level by leaving. Take care and thanks for your comment….bb

    • Joy says:

      I don’t know about Kaplan, but there are others, like the State University of New York, where you do your ceurmtopized tests and then take your clinical exams in the area you live in. As far as I know of, there are only two states that do not accept these degrees, Louisiana and I think Indiana. Wherever you go, you will still have to pass the NCLEX exam to get your RN anyway. This is assuming you are not already an RN and just going for the Bachelor’s part. If you are an LVN going for an RN, you have a choice between just getting an RN and getting a BS RN.If you are already an RN, chances are you can find a local university that you can take the additional courses to complete your bachelors for a lot less than any on-line school. And you have to be very careful about the on-line schools, anyway. I have no worries about SUNY because it is associated with an actual state university. But any other school I would thoroughly google and check out on Ripoff Report before I committed any money to it.But if you have no clinical experience at all, I definitely wouldn’t attempt to take care of a patient after only an online course.

What are your thoughts?