Be a good listener. A person who approaches you to unload needs a sounding board. Perhaps he/she is frustrated about something and badly needs someone to talk to. Be patient and concentrate on what they are saying.
Do not cut them off. Listen to what they have to say. Talk when they pause or after they finish what they want to say.
Only offer advice if they ask for it. It can be a point of view, an opinion, or an anecdote about your own experiences that is related to the topic. Don’t force your beliefs down their throats.
Keep it short and sweet. Feedback doesn’t have to be long-winded. Say only what is necessary. Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.
Stay on point. Don’t veer off the topic until the other person is willing to. If they still need to release their tension about the original reason why they started the conversation, don’t stray and start talking about other stuff.
Don’t be self-serving. I know someone who breaks all of the above. Even if you approach her and say that something troubles you and that you need someone to talk to, she would cut you off after two minutes and go on and on about her life for hours. I thought it was just with me since we’re particularly close. But I learned that she does it with everyone.
Be tactful. Don’t blurt out things you should not. Think before you speak.
Don’t be a know-it-all. Don’t pretend that you have an advice for every single topic on earth. Don’t pretend to be the reincarnation of Buddha or the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Learn when to say “I’m not sure, but we’ll try to find out.”
Be humble. Related to the above, don’t be a pompous ass and make yourself out to be smarter or wiser than the other. We never stop learning from others so know when to keep a low profile. As Socrates says, accept that you don’t know everything to let knowledge flow in.
Appreciate and accept criticism. You have the right to give your point of view. (And I bet we all exercise it!) Expect others to do the same and turn it into a constructive learning experience. Respect others’ opinions even if you don’t agree with them.
And, last but not the least, remember that a conversation requires two people. Anything less than that is a speech or a lecture.
I don’t always follow my own advice (especially the tactful part) but at least I’m trying and struggling. I still break the golden rules. I used to be the kind of person who did the opposite of the above but I don’t want to be that person anymore. I guess it comes with getting older and realizing that I used to be stupid — or more stupid compared to my current stupidity.
If you need to be terribly opinionated, self-serving, and be able to go and on about your own topic or self-interests, start a blog. Heh.