(U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Greg Biondo/Released)

It’s easier to ask a friend to open up than it is to actually listen to them. When your friend is venting about their coworkers, management, mental health or another problem, you can’t just nod along.

Mastering the art of listening can make you a better military member, coworker, spouse or friend. The next time someone you care about decides to blow off steam and vent, keep these strategies in mind so you can help your friend.

Shut Your Mouth

A lot of people fail this very obvious first step.

A study of 900 college and military students published on Military.com found that the best listeners patiently waited for the speaker to finish talking before offering any input. Listeners also paraphrased what they heard to make sure they were understanding.

On the other hand, poor listeners often interrupted the speaker, changed the subject and talked too much. They also fidgeted, zoned out and failed to maintain eye contact.

Avoid Asking ‘Why’

Asking ‘why’ questions can come across as an accusation and put your friend on the defensive. For example, “Why are you upset?” sounds more like “You shouldn’t be upset. Explain yourself.” If you really need to say something, reframe your question to remove the ‘why’ so your buddy is more likely to open up. “Tell me what is bothering you.” “What has happened?”

Leave the Solutions For Later

Venting isn’t really about brainstorming solutions to a problem. It’s about someone expressing frustration to a friend who is willing to take them seriously. Don’t offer half-baked solutions and empty reassurances unless your friend expressly asks for it.

Have an Exit Strategy

Active listening isn’t the same as being garbage disposal for someone else’s excess negativity. If you reach a point where you don’t have the energy to keep listening (or where now you want to vent to somebody else), have a plan in place for ending the vent session.

Lifehacker suggests that you impose a mental time limit on how long you are willing to listen before moving on with your day. This time limit can be implied or stated outright:

Tell yourself that you’ll listen for five full, attentive minutes before moving on. To avoid sounding like a jerk, you can subtly introduce a time limit out loud so they know you’ll hear them out, but not to complain until armageddon arrives. For example, you can offer to listen while you make them a cup of tea on your break, or while you grab you both a snack.

Or, better yet, diplomatically set a hard time limit outright by saying something like “Sure, let’s talk! I have to make a phone call/run a meeting/finish a report at [X time that’s five minutes from now] though, if that’s okay.” or “Let’s grab a coffee on the way to [location] and talk then,” and talk to the end of that coffee and then excuse yourself.