It’s pretty sad when we must resort to research in determining whether or not a person can keep a secret. We’d like to think that someone – for the sake of both people’s honor – would treat confidentiality with respect.
Unfortunately, this is not often the case. People who appear trustworthy sometimes are not. A pleasant smile and sweet voice, while attractive, does not necessarily correlate with trustworthiness.
Before we get into the psychology of decoding one’s ability to keep a secret, let’s discuss some obvious outliers.
What Not to Discuss (or Listen to)
As with most other touchy subjects, “secret keeping” also has some caveats. Here are a few examples:
– Plans to Harm
In other words, anything unethical.
Of course, if someone’s asking you to stay quiet about them cheating on their spouse, stealing something, smearing someone’s reputation, or committing some other egregious act – you’re under no obligation to comply. In fact, you should end the conversation post haste.
You, of course, know better not to make such a ridiculous request!
Topics of Discussion
Before asking a person to keep a secret, we should take an objective look at why we’re asking in the first place.
The most common scenario is when an individual needs to get something off of their chest – and is trusting you to maintain confidentiality.
For example, let’s say you’re burnt out at work and are considering looking for employment elsewhere. You may wish to discuss your employment situation with someone close. Perhaps your relationship is on the rocks, and you look to your friend for advice.
Both of the scenarios mentioned above require discretion. It goes without saying that such matters should be treated with the utmost respect.
Will They Spill the Beans?
Here are five questions to ask yourself before divulging your secret to someone:
1. Is the person reliable?
Think about the individual’s overall reliability. Are they dependable in most areas of their life? When you need them, are they available? Do other people view them as reliable?
One’s reliability in other areas of life strongly correlates with dependability and trustworthiness. If the individual displays reliability, odds are they make decisions carefully, and with both sensitivity and specificity.
2. Is the person dramatic?
Put simply, drama queens (or kings) are not good at keeping secrets.
Here’s an excerpt from a study undertaken at the University of Texas: “People with drama-prone personalities generally live chaotic lives and inflict contrived crises on family, friends, and co-workers.”
Furthermore, ‘high drama’ people are prone to actively search for and “engage in gossip about others.”
Can’t be much clearer than that.
3. Do they actively listen?
Researchers from the University of Colorado define active listening as “listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding.”
Here are a few signs of active listening:
– full attention on the speaker (you)
– repeating or paraphrasing what was said
– asking questions for clarity
– good eye contact
– minimization of distractions
When a person is skillful at active listening, they have a solid understanding and comprehension of what was said. Active listeners are generally thoughtful, logical, and non-impulsive.
In other words, seek out an active listener when it comes to sensitive topics.
4. Do they have a “history”?
While our past doesn’t necessarily define our future, it may be a good indication of a person’s character. Evaluating a persons history should not be undertaken judgmentally or with bias. We’ve all made mistakes!
That said, a secret is a sacred trust. There is little to no room for an error in judgment. As such, we must consider our history with the other person.
People with a “bad history” – however you may define the term– are quite well-known.
Have they violated someone else’s trust? Do they partake in office gossip? Do they regularly display eccentric and unstable behavior? All of these are important questions to consider.
5. What is the secret?
Consider a couple of things: (a) what is the topic of discussion? (b) why are you choosing to divulge this information?
The purpose of asking these questions is to get you thinking about potential outlets. For example, if it’s a relationship issue, is this conversation better had with someone in a professional setting?
The more personal the matter, the more appropriate it is to seek counsel from someone with the relevant expertise. Most employers offer some kind of employee assistance program (EAP in the United States) that pay for a certain number of counseling sessions.
(As someone who’s dealt with a tough personal issue, the writer can not place enough emphasis on the importance of taking advantage of EAP or other free programs.)
There is also a multitude of online forums in which to express yourself anonymously. Quora is an excellent outlet for asking questions – and (sometimes) receiving expert advice/opinions.