"Don't tell anyone but..." The sharing of a secret - greatest gift AND greatest abuse of trust.
As a coach I learn things about people which may otherwise not be disclosed...usually because they are embarrassing, or things that are simply "half thoughts" and sharing them - even with loved ones - may muddy the waters for the person trying to work through. As a coach I am also bound by an ethical code including the management of confidential information - which is privileged except under 3 circumstances:
- danger to the self
- danger to others
- danger to the company (eg. defrauding)
This is a very explicit part of the coaching agreement.
As a person, perhaps because I am a good listener, I often also get told things which may also fulfil a similar personal or vulnerable space in the mind of the speaker - things which they'd really rather not say on social media (which, let's be honest, is a bit like shouting across a room and seeing who responds)!
Don't say anything but...
I am ashamed to admit that in the past, whether driven by a desire "to be liked"; for "entertainment" and the "drama" of being able to reveal a secret; to demonstrate power; or even just to make conversation (which is the worst of all); I have disclosed things which I know are things I was trusted with. There was a time where your trust, as a friend, would have been misplaced.
This was some years ago, and (as well as taking my ethical commitments seriously as a professional) I changed my ways personally as I realised that all that was happening was that my friendship group had become one which seemed to thrive on gossip, exclusion, and "insider knowledge". In-jokes are fine, but not if they are at the expense of others. So while I might have been riding high, as "queen bee" - my crown was severely tarnished.
Be the friend you want to have
Part of this change was my own thinking about what I valued in friendship - loyalty, kindness, trust, and I saw that the circle I had at the time was not steeped in any of this. It was "fair weathered" at best. So instead I began focusing on living my values, and recognising who remained - and returned the acts. Over time, my friendships changed. Those which stayed deepened, fuelled by said values - not by "sensation"; new friendships formed, built on the same principles, and I am grateful every day that I have people around me whom I trust and who trust me in equal measure. I slip up occasionally, there is a fine line between "gossip" and "analysis", but I try to catch myself early before any real damage is done...including to my own sense of being the person I want to be!
Respect the treasure you are entrusted with
Now, if someone discloses something, I hold it for them. If someone values me enough to ask me for help, I do my best to meet that need. I remember, I ask them about it - often because they may not find they can talk about it with anyone else. I recognise how privileged I am to be invited into that knowledge, especially because it is often something which makes them feel vulnerable and exposed. To "Pass it on" is the equivalent of sharing naked photographs!
Similarly, if I needed to share, they would be someone I know would be as respectful of me.
Not all secrets require "solving"
Sometimes people confide in you because they just need a sounding board - a safe place to vent; or it might be because they want your help. However, if can become problematic if you offer help, they simply want to talk and then when they choose not to follow (the help they didn't want), you get upset. Annie Duke suggests making a "truth seeking contract" when you are unsure, which can be as simple as asking - "Would you like my help, or do you just want me to listen?" Then, if help is required, empowering questions are the best place to start eg:
- What options have you considered?
- What could I/we do specifically that could make a difference?
or a reframing approach:
- Have you considered that X might see it differently?
The instinctive tendency we have as compassionate beings is to offer advice, but our advice is often what is best for us, not necessarily the other person and we may also take away the chance they had of claiming their power in the situation and taking the first step in solving it themselves. Offering prompts is a great way to support as well as empower.
Healthy friendships are based on shared values, not gossip
My behaviours - and indeed my relationships - are now much improved, perhaps because my time and energy is directed at those with whom I share my values, and I ask before I offer anything unsolicited...or apologise at once if I realise I've done it automatically. And, I always do this in a private forum.
While gossip may be a form of bonding - it attracts only those who, simply, wish to bond over gossip.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author focused on practical self improvement. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; watch her psychology & coaching masterclasses on YouTube Or catch her hosting Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV where she and her team discuss how psychology affects our behaviours in the workplace and what we can do about it. Follow her self improvement content updates on Twitter/IG @draudreyt (but message her if it's personal!)