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Passion, People and Principles

Squeezing the Stress Sponge

post # 226 — October 30, 2006 — a Managing post

My sister Frances (who passed away earlier this year and is sorely missed) was a management consultant for a long while. She used to tell this story:

Before going into consultancy I was a teacher. In a school in a relatively tough area, the stress was phenomenal. I had nowhere to go with my stress and was just told not to complain. I got more and more depressed and eventually left teaching. When I went into consultancy I noticed that managers who “listened” had more effective staff. People, like sponges, can absorb only so much stress. Find a way to squeeze your stress sponge, and also allow other people to share their concerns and problems. It helps to get rid of some of the pressure, thus enabling you (or them) to cope with more.

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my central themes is that we must learn about how people function wherever we can, and then apply those lessons in each of the contexts in which we operate.

We have stress in our personal lives. Conflicting demands for what has to be done — NOW! —and we try to accommodate our loved ones. But, as at work, pressure can build. Between husband and wife, parents and children and other family members, any way you can find to give the other person the opportunity to say what’s on their mind helps to overcome pressures, misunderstandings.

My sister’s lesson is that it helps most if you can solve the source of the stress, it helps a little if you say “sorry” — but it’s still worth giving people a chance to vent if you can’t change things. Talking about it helps under almost all circumstances, and enables people to carry on even if the source of stress cannot be immediately removed.

I’m curious — in your workplace, what opportunities are there for people to let off steam, vent and vocalize their frustrations, or, as Frances would say, “squeeze the stress sponge.” What have you seen that works? What creative approaches have you seen?


Frank Schophuizen said:

In my work, venting about frustrations to relieve stress often has the opposite effect: it builds stress and frustration. This particularly happens when talking with men and it happens less when talking with women.

Men have a tendency of being solution-oriented. When venting frustrations and stress, they typically try to find a solution or a way to a solution (“Have you tried…” or “Talk to …”) or they try to avoid making it their problem (“That’s not my responsibility” or “I can’t help you with that”) or they offer help (“What do you want me to do about it?”).

Women on the other hand are more process-oriented. They typically try to empathize and try to understand the situation; they try to discover how I feel about it and what I did, do and are going to do.

Venting stress is in fact not about not being able to find a solution for a particular problem, but about dealing with feelings, contradicting thoughts and arguable arguments. Therefore, the feminine approach works much better (for me at least). However, it’s often a men’s world we work in and only few men are able to act feminine – especially in technical jobs.

Alternatively, I can turn to my wife. She is a great listener! But since she is not familiar with the peculiarities of my work, she has a hard time understanding me, and what causes my stress level. She can empathize with me having those feelings, but it is hard to relieve stress when talking to someone who doesn’t understand my situation.

posted on October 30, 2006

Ahmet Dogramaci said:

Hi David, I have not seen stress sponges at work, but I consider being a stress sponge part of consulting. I do provide information technology services. However, soon after I started my career I found out that my services is not limited to IT. I listen to my clients problems, be it workplace or personal. When I do that, I let them vent their stress. I think this way we start to build the trust needed for a long term relationship. I also think me being an outsider – you are not competing with your client – makes it is easier for them to vent their workplace frustrations.


posted on October 30, 2006

Stephanie Fox Muller said:

My work as a technology marketing consultant frequently places me onsite with my clients. I think it helps clients quite a bit when they can rely on me as a sounding board for their professional frustrations. I find that by providing “off the record” advice and counsel about how they can work more effectively, it dramatically increases the level of trust between us for the work I’m actually being paid for. I have found, though, that if the information they want to share is intensely personal, it can sometimes interfere with our working relationship.

posted on October 30, 2006

ann michael said:

David –

Working mostly on my own, my stress sponge is a long walk, or talking to my husband, or playing with my dog – basically – it’s a break, a change of scenery and and a chance to come back to a stressful situation with a fresh perspective.

I would also agree with Frank that if you’re not careful talking about a stressful situation (especially with the wrong person – regardless of gender) can be very damaging.

I’ve been in situations where horrible morale spread like wildfire and where legitimate issues got magnified (and even embelished) as they went from person to person – many of whom were trying to relieve stress.

posted on October 31, 2006