Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Have you ever been in a conversation where you're talking with someone about something that really interests them and they suddenly say, "Oh, I really can't go into that...", or, "I can't really talk about that..."

One moment, you're talking about something that seems to be very important to them and the next, well... you've suddenly run out of bounds.

There are many forms of this phenomenon. In some cases, the person speaking is protecting a confidence (i.e., someone has told them something that they don't want shared with others). In others, they're protecting themselves (i.e., they don't want people to find out about what they're saying). And still in others, they've been instructed not to talk about the topic with threat of reprisal.

Whether the censorship is self imposed or otherwise, in my experience, not being able to talk about things tends not to be the most useful approach to a life of clarity and happiness.

Protecting a Confidence
Oftentimes, people will say, "I'll tell you something as long as you promise not tell anyone else."

And oftentimes, the listener will say, "Sure, I promise not to tell."

And, surprisingly (or perhaps not), oftentimes the secret being told is something that the teller had himself or herself promised not to share. ( I can't begin to tell you all the times, someone has told me something that I found out later was told to them in confidence.)

Based on experience, I would say that the whole personally-confidential system is pretty flawed.

Just Say No
Almost always, when someone tells me that they want to tell me something, and I have to promise not to tell anyone else, I simply say, "Then don't tell me!"

I've found this to be tremendously freeing. I don't have to manage a list of what I can and can't tell people (BTW, if you don't actually keep your confidences, this isn't a problem). I've also found that, after consideration, what the teller considered to be confidential initially wasn't so confidential after all.

Rule One: Don't enter lightly into a promise of keeping things confidential.

Speaking in Confidence
This may be an artifact of my adherence rule one, but, for the most part, people in my life aren't people who ask for things to be held in confidence. Reciprocally, I almost never ask someone to hold something in confidence. If I'm working through an issue with someone by talking to a third party, I don't ask the third party to keep what I'm saying confidential.

I really like this approach for a lot of reasons. First, I really like not inflicting confidentiality on others. I know, they can always apply Rule One, but still, who wants to be someone who's always hiding behind confidentiality.

Second, I love being in a position where I'm never concerned about whether or not someone will maintain a confidence. I find that a life without secrets is a lot more efficient and easy, than a life of trying to maintain secrets.

Rule Two: To the best of your ability, live a life devoid of personal secrets.

Note: I absolutely see the value in secrecy. I see great value in keeping the location of a battered spouse away from the battering spouse. I see value in protecting the identities of people who are whistle-blowers. I have great admiration for the people who have hidden the persecuted in the midst of great persecutions such as the German Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. There are many times when secrets are really important.

However, in my ordinary life, these situations tend to be the exception, not the rule.

Outright Censorship
There are many situations in which the request for confidentiality turns into an outright demand with consequences, an ultimatum.

Often, these demands have merit. For example, I kind of like the idea that we don't tell everyone on the planet how to build their own nuclear weapons (though many would debate this). I prefer that not everyone know how to produce mass quantities of bio hazardous material in their backyard. I'd like certain things kept secret.

I also see cases (such resistance to totalitarian and dictatorial states), where non-compliance with these demands is critical to change.

Daily Life Censorship

But back to my world, where I don't deal with nuclear arms or totalitarian states on a daily basis...

Over the past few years, I've been in work situations where people have asked me to keep information private, with consequences.

Often, the motivations have seemed reasonable (to me). People have asked me to work on systems that are patentable, breakthrough technologies. They've paid a lot of money to develop them and deserve to garner the benefit of their investments. For me, these types of confidence are easy to maintain. They seem quite reasonable (to me).

Sometimes, the requests have more to do with hiding something that "we wouldn't want public." They're not about protecting a trade secret or a patentable technology; they're about protecting reputation. Usually, the reputation in question isn't that of the company, but that of the person making the request. People will use phrases like, "we have to keep this private because people wouldn't understand" or "we can't let this out because it would be damaging to the organization".

Knowing that keeping a secret in a company costs time and money, and that having kept a secret can be more damaging to a company's reputation than the secret itself, I tend to respond to these request with "no". We then proceed to figure out the best course of action.

Every once and a while, we don't come to an agreement and I'm given an ultimatum. My response to these types of ultimatum is really easy and consistent...

Rule Three: Never compromise your own integrity by keeping a confidence just so you won't lose your job.

Note: what may seem reasonable to me, may not seem reasonable to you. The question here isn't one of what is or isn't a reasonable demand; it's one of, how do you respond to an demand that is unreasonable in your eyes.

  1. There are many situations in which confidentiality is meaningfully useful.
  2. These situations are few and far between. They are a small percentage of the confidences we undertake.
  3. Start to make your default response to confidentiality requests, no.
  4. Make commitments to confidentiality rarely and only after you're really considered them thoroughly. Then keep them.
  5. If someone says, "keep this confidential or else", walk away.

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