Can you keep a secret?

Of course you can – you’re a professional after all.  But it’s worth pausing occasionally to think about what you mean by ‘everything you tell me will be treated in strict confidence’.   Really??  You won’t be discussing the key facts that came out of the conversation with your colleagues?  The ‘hard’ data and the more interesting stuff about how your interlocutor felt about that time a colleague seemed to take the credit for their idea?   Clearly, unless you are going to work out advice to your client entirely in your own head, it’s not, strictly speaking, confidential, is it?

Trust is the bedrock of every relationship, professional or otherwise, and keeping confidences is one of the behaviours which makes trust happen.  One loose remark and months of relationship building are undermined.  So the confidentiality agreement needs to be more than something hidden in the terms and conditions of your contract, more than taken as read, it’s got to be real, and evolving.

Confidentiality has to be addressed upfront as soon as your interactions begin.  If you omit to say something about it and assume there’s some unwritten norm in the ether of the interview, possible outcomes are that your client (substitute the appropriate word for whatever relates to your role) spills the beans and then regrets it afterwards, or clams up.  In the first case the relationship will be off to a rocky start because the client is already feeling at a disadvantage.  In the second, you will have missed the opportunity to learn anything useful.

It has always seemed to me that the key is to be absolutely clear (and honest, of course) about what will happen to the information you gather in the meeting.  Then whoever you are dealing with can regulate for themselves how much they tell you.  If they know that topics will be analysed in your team meetings, or be part of your feedback to a wider group within the client organisation, they can judge what to share with you.  Which brings me to: ‘of course everything will be treated as non-attributable’.  It’s a mighty elephant trap for the unwary.  Believe me, I’ve been there, and it wasn’t pretty.  People within an organisation can always pinpoint the source of particular opinions.  So when in the ‘feeding back the results of our interviews’ session, an observation goes up on the screen or flipchart, client staff will know that Eric or Fiona said that.  They always know.

Underneath trust is confidentiality and underlying confidentiality are clarity and honesty.  And after being real about it, comes evolution.  Once you have demonstrated in practice that you don’t tell people what you think of someone else (making them wonder what you’re saying about them to others), and you don’t inappropriately share information even from casual conversations, you will get a reputation for not betraying confidences.  Only then is the client likely to share with you the real reasons the new system won’t work, or why that team underperformed.  You move on from a somewhat limited association with someone which operates only with information in the public domain, to a deeper relationship which can genuinely address the issues at hand and develop options with actual traction in the organisation.

So there’s the answer.  Just don’t tell them I said so.

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