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Maintaining Confidentiality: 4 Common Pitfalls To Avoid

image of a wyandot native american leader, leatherlips, who was known for being trustworthy. he is a symbol for how to keep secrets and confidence..
“Leatherlips,” a Wyandot Native-American leader (1732-1810), known for his exceptional trustworthiness.

The goal of this article is to get us to think twice before confiding in someone, and three times before breaking a confidence. There is a certain temptation people feel to reveal confidential information. First, holding a secret can feel like a weight. There is a part of us that can’t connect with people who don’t know what we know. This is often the reason we tell people secrets about ourselves in the first place. However, it is the same reason why confidence can get breached. Second, revealing confidential information can make for an interesting conversation, or a series of interesting conversations. People want to be entertained and intrigued, and secret information supplies instant gratification. Third, revealing confidential information can bolster one’s reputation as someone “in the know.” It communicates that they have access to privileged information, which can elevate their social status.

Having understood that temptation, it goes without saying that breaking confidence can damage people. Knowledge is power. Not everyone in the world has good intentions, and even people with good intentions do not always possess understanding. The disclosure of a secret in the form of a personal weakness or mistake, family fact, thought, doubt, or preference can damage its author. There is a reason why people reveal certain things in strict confidence. They trust the listener with that piece of information, but clearly they do not trust everyone.

When people are engaged in criminal or nefarious activity, the victims and the proper authority have a right to know. Not telling anyone, for example, when a child is being abused or a plot is being hatched to kill or defraud people, would make us complicit in their actions. For every evil act, there are two victims: the one who does the act, and the one(s) to whom the act is done. In other words, everybody loses–including the people who could have prevented it from happening.

However, in most cases, the disclosure of personal secrets happens not to protect people, but due to a character flaw on the part of the telltale. Emotional weakness, a lack of self-control, ego–or, yet worse, malicious intent–are most commonly responsible for breaches of confidentiality. That’s what this article is about.

Without further ado, I present four common ways secrets get revealed. We can read them as reminders for us to be careful whom we disclose information to, as well as pitfalls to avoid for those of us carrying secrets that others have confided in us.

Maintaining confidentiality requires safeguarding the information that an individual has disclosed in a relationship of trust and with the expectation that it will not be disclosed to others without permission, except in ways that are consistent with the original disclosure.

University Of Nevada (source)

1. The telltale can’t keep a secret.

This one is the most obvious. Some people just can’t keep a secret. They don’t have the character or emotional fortitude. These types reveal secrets to connect with others, to spice up conversation, or to increase their status in a group. They may have malicious intentions, or they may simply be too dense, immature, or indifferent to realize the damage their disclosure can do to the person who confided in them. A good indicator is whether a person violates the confidentiality of others around us. If the answer is “yes,” there is a good chance they will do the same to us when the script is flipped.

We should see to it that #1 is never true of us. To my mind, if someone can’t be trusted to keep a secret, then they can’t be trusted with anything of significance.

2. The emotional tension of the initial disclosure has worn off.

When people tell us something, and ask us not to tell anyone, there is a certain tension that gets generated. Initially, we feel emotionally connected to the seriousness of the issue at hand. Over time, however, this feeling can rub off. Many people have the intention to keep a secret. However, after a month, two months, or even a year or ten years elapse, they do not feel that confidence is necessary or even desired. However, confidentiality is not time-sensitive or based on emotions. Unless the person who shared their secret changes the parameters of that confidence, the presumption should remain that they are valid for all time.

It may be that it is easy to keep a secret at first, when the emotion is fresh, but over time it increasingly requires self-control. Self-control obviously means not taking the initiative to tell, but it also means guarding our responses in social settings. People may ask us questions about a person or situation, and our responses or body language should never reveal or hint at information they have no business knowing.

We should also be mindful of time when confiding in people. We may be OK with them knowing today, but what about a month from now? 6 months? A year? 10 years?

3. The confidant and the person who confided in them grow apart.

Some relationships are for life, but many are not. We cannot predict the future, even if the assumption that nothing seriously bad will happen is good for our psychological health. Family, friends, and lovers sometimes grow apart. When distance gets created in a relationship, loyalty often falls off. I’m not saying we shouldn’t trust the people who are closest to us. The fact is we need to trust some people, and even risk being hurt, to have a healthy psychology (see THIS article). However, we should measure our need to trust others against the seriousness of the secret, both in the short-term and in the long-term. Many people reveal their secrets to people who have no business knowing, and later live to regret it.

On the flip side, we should maintain people’s confidence, even if we are no longer as close to them as we were at the time of disclosure. We may not feel the same love or connection, but the stakes for that person have not changed, even if we are a lot less personally invested than we once were. This is an extension of the “golden rule.” To treat everyone the way we want to be treated, not just people who happen to be in our inner circle at this moment in time.

4. The confidant and the person who confided in them become enemies.

Not only do people grow apart, which weakens the emotional incentive to keep secrets, but people who were once close sometimes become hostile. Family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, business or romantic partners–you name it. We should be optimistic in life; however, we should also be realistic. We can mitigate the risk of trusting others by not confiding in too many people and by character screening the people we do confide in.

It takes integrity and emotional fortitude to keep a secret, even when friends are involved, and that much more so when the person involved is someone we feel indifference or hostility towards. .

Information can carry in mysterious ways. The Proverb below reminds me of a joke my uncle used to tell us when we were kids about a bird who would tell him secrets about the world.

Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

Ecclesiastes 10:20

Today, let’s remember that we can control the people we tell, but we cannot control the people they tell. On the other hand, maintaining confidentiality when no criminal or nefarious behavior is at play makes the world a safer place.

For more, see the complete archive of articles on integrity.

An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of their lives. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy hiking, web-making, learning foreign languages, and watching live sports. Alumnus of Georgetown University (B.S.) and The Ohio State University (M.A.).

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