Do You Want Advice or Do You Want Validation?

young Asian couple sitting on the sofa, smiling at each other
“Women don’t want advice. They just want you to listen.”

I remember the first time I learned this principle – courtesy of Alison Armstrong. In delivering her “Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women” seminar, she gave a distinctive and visual metaphor to describe how men should deal with a woman who is venting.

Alison holds out her arms into a hula hoop sized ring in front of her body… “This is a toilet,” she says. “Your job, as a man, is just to hold her hair and rub her back as she vomits her story into your toilet. As long as she’s speaking, you just hold her hair back. That’s all you’re expected to do. That’s all we WANT you to do.”

In my experience, she’s absolutely right: women do want men to listen silently and unconditionally to them as they speak. Don’t interrupt. Don’t offer advice. Don’t do anything, guys. Just listen. It’s cathartic to her and it makes her feel connected to you.

But, beyond the surface benefits of feeling better, does she LEARN anything from these good “conversations”? Probably not. It’s hard to learn anything if you’re doing all the talking. What a venting woman gets out of it is the illusion of a kindred spirit – the person who nods and understands and tells her exactly what she wants to hear: nothing.

“This is a toilet,” she says. “Your job, as a man, is just to hold her hair and rub her back as she vomits her story into your toilet.”

This isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. It’s what supportive girlfriends are for. The reason I’m bringing this up is because we guys have no idea how to handle such conversations. I just got off the phone with a friend who was listening to his sister vent about relationship issues for an hour on the phone. He told me he didn’t say anything the entire time, didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing, didn’t know even why they were having this conversation – since it was the same exact conversation they’d been having for months. Yet, at the end of the call, she told him that she felt better. Even though he didn’t speak. Even though she didn’t learn anything. Even though she’s going to suffer from the exact same relationship issues and be on the phone with him again in three weeks.

My advice to him – in the likely event that she comes back for more “dialogue” – is to listen to her until she’s done, and then ASK her if she’s open to hearing his thoughts. By getting her permission after a venting session, she knows he’s fully “heard” her and that he has nothing but her interests at heart. And if she doesn’t want to hear his thoughts, then that says a lot about what she sees her friends for: blank sounding boards designed to tell her what she wants to hear, as opposed to what she needs to hear.

Men are fixers. Men are problem solvers. Asking us to not do what we do naturally is a tall order.

We’ll listen to you, all right, but please know that the only reason we give you advice is because we CARE and want to HELP. In other words, we see ourselves as Good Samaritans. Unfortunately, you seem to want us to be Innocent Bystanders.

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  1. 1

    I have the opposite thing happen – Jake will vent about his work, and then say, “well, don’t you have a response?” And I’m like, “I have absolutely no idea what it is even possible to say right now.” I don’t even work in the same industry and barely understand what he is telling me!

  2. 2

    A toilet seat can either be up or down. Why do women *tend* to automatically think that it is proper for it to be down for their consideration instead being up for the consideration of their men?

    In the same way, why is the emphasis on men to change their proclivities to nothing but listen rather than for women to change their proclivities by learning to not to need so much emotional validation? To not bring up problems unless they intend to do something about those problems?

    I say this as a person who finds venting to be very helpful in getting me settled enough to DO things about my problem. I try to be there for my friends to vent to me when they need it. However, I have had situations like Evan’s post where a female friend would have 1/2 hour long monologues…….repeatedly.

    It started making me anxious to hear about someone’s pain and not be able to do anything about it.

    I learned to tell myself “this is not my problem, I will not be hurt” when she called. It helped. One time I even put the phone down to go to the bathroom. I cam back and she was still talking and didn’t even notice that I was gone.

    Venting is good. Getting emotional validation is helpful. Yet, if you are venting about the same problem over and over again……..well, you got a problem. You need to do something.

  3. 3

    And then some of us are like sponges, we get dumped on with a lot of venting (sometime about the same things over and over again) . Yes, the person venting feels better but the receiver is completely stressed out. What do to about that…

  4. 4

    I think this “venting” to men and not expecting us to offer a way to fix the situation has gotten way out of hand. As Even said, men are fixers by nature and that is what we do, and what we’ll continue to do. I think it is bad advice to tell men…and you hear it ALL the time…to just sit there and let women go on and on about nothing is stupid. And this is exactly what happens…nothing. That’s a little like men saying to the women “hey, screw the hell out of me when I want it, then make me a sandwich, and then shut the hell up”! Fat chance!

    1. 4.1

      Ahahah!! Reminds me of Family Guy when Peter says to Lois post-coital…”less talky, more fetchy…”

  5. 5
    Karl R

    Paul said: (#4)
    “I think this ‘venting’ to men and not expecting us to offer a way to fix the situation has gotten way out of hand. […] I think it is bad advice to tell men and you hear it ALL the time to just sit there and let women go on and on about nothing is stupid.”

    Let me refer back to, and expand upon my statements from the previous topic.

    Women don’t owe men sex. Men don’t owe women a listening ear. And neither is owed a relationship.

    You don’t want to listen to her? You don’t have to. She might dump you because of it. That’s the possible consequence of your decision.

    You can’t change women (or men). You can choose to change your own attitudes and behavior.

    And if you’re dating someone who wants to complain about the same thing incessantly without listening to your thoughts on the matter, do yourself a favor and break up with her.

  6. 6

    @HRGODDESS Post #3

    When I was a kid some scary movies were just too scary for me sometimes. I discovered that I could reduce the horror by telling myself it was just actors performing a script. It wasn’t real.

    I discovered a few years ago that I get anxious when people tell me about their problems, at length and repeatedly…….without a resolution being discussed. In other words, heavy duty over-venting.

    I remembered my old trick for the scary movies, adapted it to this situation and it *helped*. When on the phone with such friends I tell myself it is their problem not mine, it will not hurt my life, they do not gain anything by me feeling anxious – it is okay to feel happy and that I am helping by just letting them talk.

    I’m still not cut out to be psychotherapist, but my ability to be there for friends without it upsetting me has greatly improved.

  7. 7
    JoAnn Anglin

    But sometimes sympathy IS wanted. Some situations cannot be fixed – job loss, death of a parent, etc. Then a woman needs to be told, It’s crap that it happened to you. How can I comfort you? etc., etc.

  8. 8

    Steve, sadly your toilet seat example is not a good one. The worst-case scenario of your bare girl-parts getting submerged in the toilet and getting a yeast or bacterial infection because it’s not clean enough is way worse than the worst-case scenario of not noticing the seat is down and having to wipe up fresh urine, which is sterile. Of course, in my house the entire lid has to be down but that’s because otherwise the cats and dog will drink out of it and that is just gross on too many levels 🙂

    The whole venting/problem solving debate is just another example of everyone going, “Well, I shouldn’t have to change my innate response to someone else’s emotional stresses” and then resenting that, when you have a problem, no one is willing/able to give you what you need. In a way Evan’s advice here seems opposite his usual advice, which is “accept that you can’t change the other person, so either change your response to the person, or remove yourself from their presence.”

    That said, if someone is venting about the same thing over and over, and not taking any advice or action to solve the problem, then I usually say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, I can’t listen to you vent about this particular issue any more unless you are taking concrete steps to change the situation for the better. I’m happy to give you advice if you both want it and take it, but I am no longer willing to be your sounding board.”

    1. 8.1

      Your worst case scenario is absurd due to its extremely low probability of occurrence with anyone that has remotely developed sensory faculties.   The issue always has been conceptual and about power – the female assumption that the female perspective is central and default.   That men must always acknowledge and defer to it.   Not one of equality.

  9. 9

    I will also say that in my experience, when women want to vent the real problem is that they don’t feel heard – so listening IS helping. I don’t vent often because my close personal friendships are drama-free, I don’t really talk to my family, and I love my job – but the things I am most likely to vent about are when other people don’t take my recommendations or advice about something! So if it feels like the person you are venting to doesn’t “hear” you, then it just makes the original frustration worse.

  10. 10

    Maybe I’m an exception to the rule, but I don’t think that all women just want to vent without being given perspective or suggestions in response. I can only speak for myself, but I know my own thoughts pretty well, and I’m usually looking for a “reality check” or another point of view that I haven’t yet considered. So for me, I’d have to say to any men willing to listen to me, “React and fix away!”–here is at least one woman who wants you to do what you do best…help me solve or fix the problem…and I’m very appreciative when I get that kind of attention.

  11. 11

    Okay, gotta say something here. Not all women are like this. In fact, I am a woman and I am very solution oriented. I have noticed however that MANY of my female friends are like this (what you describe above) and it DRIVES ME NUTS. I am always ‘the guy’ in the conversation. Suggesting what to do, how to fix the thing and so on… No, they won’t have it. Anyway, just wanted to put my two cents in and say that not all women are like what you describe, thankfully!!!! Damn it, I talk because it’s the means to a solution!

    1. 11.1

      Standard female response men have heard for eons whenever pointing out a generally consistent trend in female behaviour – “NAWALT!”.   Face it, the majority of women consistently aren’t solutions oriented.   Otherwise they would have made significant contributions to major inventions of the 21st century.  

  12. 12

    I agree with Emily. Not all women are like this. I rarely tell anyone stories or my troubles “just to vent”. What’s the point of talking just to talk anyways? Unless its to your shrink, but even then you want them to “fix it”.
    I tell any problem or situation I’m having to a man or woman hoping that they’ll have some useful feedback or provide something I haven’t thought of.

  13. 13

    Interesting topic. My experiences have taught me that men do indeed want to fix what they are interpreting to be a problem when, in most cases, it’s not a problem nor does anything need to be fixed, solved, or advised upon. This isn’t a complaint. It’s completely understandable because it’s their nature. And a good man will want nothing more than to be your hero, and to make you feel happy.

    What I sought wasn’t a voiceless, deep well for me to pour my emotions into, but a comforting and validating connection through touch and words. Someone who truly listened and heard my heart.

    My former husband and I learned how to better recognize the differences between us: I tried not to approach him with too much of an emotional overload, if at all, whenever he was having time to himself or busy, and he knew that all I wanted was to be heard. Sometimes all it took was a lasting, strong embrace to make me let go of my emotional burdens. It was this greater understanding that often led to my wanting to know what he thought. I valued his opinions, but sometimes my emotional burdens became his out of his love for me, and try as he did, I don’t think he either knew how to handle them or he simply could not carry their weight.

    He was my rock, my touchstone, soul mate, and best friend. It was the most natural thing for me to share my world with him; too much so I think. He wanted to always be there for me, and he was, but I believe this frayed our marriage. It’s one thing to vent about your horrible day. It’s another to be an emotional river.

    I am an island now, and I process my emotions differently with no man in site. And yes, sometimes repeatedly. It’s just the nature of women. 🙂

  14. 14

    @Honey, post #8

    It isn’t an opinion that makes me look good to women, but I feel comfortable enough telling you this. I’ve heard that view from women before about the toilet seat down vs the toilet seat up question. The first thought that comes to my mind is that the woman needs to learn to look before she shit and not be so careless.

    A clever woman might add the rejoinder that men need to look before they pee and I would have to agree. I do make it a point to turn on the light in the middle of the night, no matter how much it hurts my eyes.

    So alas, we come back to an impasse in the battle of the sexes.

  15. 15

    @14 – I meant to write “look before she sits”. Oy one day I will develop the habit of proofreading.

  16. 16

    Emily and Melissa, I’m glad to know that women like you exist

  17. 17

    As I always point out when someone yet again brings up the ridiculous War of the Sexes Over the Toilet: do some Interwebz searching on what exactly happens when you flush a toilet, and you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that EVERYONE should close the ENTIRE affair — seat and lid — BEFORE flushing. Yah, microscopic fecal- and urine-laden droplets spraying all over your counter, your hand towel, your toothbrush . . . niiiiiiiiice.

    See how solution-oriented that was?? 🙂 🙂 Like a few of the other female posters, I also have a strong analytical bent to my mental makeup. I was in a long relationship with a guy in which *I* was “from Mars” and *he* was “from Venus.” Drove. Me. Crazy.

  18. 18

    I get tired of hearing men say, “We’re problem solvers.” Of who’s freaking problems? Certainly not mine. Frankly, I’m a better problem solver than most men…and they know it. I don’t, and never have, needed a man to solve my problems. However, I have assisted many men (and women for that matter) in solving their problems. People often seek me out for advice not just for them, but for their friends also.
    I can, however, quite often use a male point of view versus my point of view or another female’s point of view. Problem with guys is, they don’t want to listen and offer advice most of the time. They want to tell you what to do…and if you listen, thank them for their opinion, and then make your own decision which might not be what they told you to do…they get mad.
    And when I say men…I’m not just talking about guys I’m dating or (were) married to…it includes my father, my brother, male friends, male co-workers, etc.

  19. 19

    Just to add that I, too, am a great problem solver; very analytical. My career has been focused on utilizing this strong skill.

    I was the problem solver in my marriage. We often joked I was the brain of the operation. Nearly every decision, big or small, revolved around me. I wanted my former husband to take on a more proactive, participatory role in the decision making because of the tremendous responsibility that I carried. I realized that at some point, someone had to take the lead.

    I am not prone to anger easily and choose to try and see irritants in a positive light. “Venting” is not something I do often. I am exceedingly calm. I think it was the responsibilities and the problems and challenges that life throws your way: lost jobs, money issues, health concerns, raising children, etc. that created the emotional fears and anxieties that would boil over.

    One thing I learned from him is that when he said, “You are a strong person, way stronger than I am,” I didn’t fully see this at first, though I had survived a difficult childhood. But since our divorce, I have learned that he was right. I knew I was strong, but somehow in all of my leaning on him, I had forgotten just how strong I can be standing on my own.
    I think a lot of people seek the advice of others, vent or whatever, and then proceed to do what they want anyway, and this sometimes means repeating the same patterns over and over again until they are forced to make a change. Some people learn quicker than others. Some not at all. 🙂

  20. 20

    @TripleM, yes, I have read about toilet flushing and it’s pretty terrible. I remember reading when I was 9 or so in reader’s digest an article by a microbiologist who claimed that the only way to make sure your toilet was *truly* clean was to douse it in rubbing alcohol and set it on fire.

    Being 9, this sounded pretty awesome to me and I immediately offered to be the toilet-cleaner of the family if only my mother would let me set it on fire. Sadly, I was turned down…

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