Why—and How—to Tell Someone a Secret

This past week a client confided to me that he had been keeping a secret from his business partner.

(What the secret is is not germane to this conversation.)

His reason for keeping it ran along the lines of, “It’s not directly related to the business…”

I told him that was true.

The trouble, however, was—is—that secrets leak, and that if—when—his business partner heard it from someone else he was likely to feel betrayed.

That kind of damage can be irrevocable.

With this in mind, I put together a quick list of things he should keep in mind if (when…) he decided to tell his business partner his secret.

Given that most of us are keeping at least one secret of our own, I thought I would share my list with you.

1. Pick THEIR time wisely.

Everyone has different biorhythms, so while you may be a morning person the person in whom you are confiding might not be. Since this is about making things as easy as possible for them, pick a time you know works for them.

Similarly, you need to allow enough time for them to have a reaction/for you to have an extended conversation. Don’t expect them to hear your news and pop right back to what they were doing.

2. Choose THEIR location wisely

Secrets are private—and this needs to be, too. While it can be exhilarating to hiss your confidence in a semi-public space, I wouldn’t recommend it. Beyond that, it can (truly) be helpful for people to have room to get up, move around, walk out if they need to. Factor this in.

Also, pick a neutral location—one that is neither yours nor theirs. The power balance is already in play. No need to make that clearer by having them on your turf or invading theirs.

3. Keep it one-on-one

Hearing a secret already makes others insecure. Bringing a buddy with you has the potential to make the person feel ganged up on/even more foolish. This conversation needs to be one-on-one.

4. Begin with, “I’ve been keeping a secret…”

Owning your behavior at the outset is key. Please don’t pretend you didn’t know you were doing it.

5. State the information—just the information.

As those of you know who have been reading the Wow for a while, giving people the “because” behind why you are doing/did something is key to getting them on board with your choice. This is not the time for this. Do not clutter things up with background, explanations, justifications… simply state the secret. Then be quiet. If they request background/information, that’s fine but don’t open with it. It has the potential to make people feel railroaded—and they’re already on edge.

6. (Try) not to have a pre-conceived idea about how they should react.

Again, this is not about you feeling comfortable. This is about them. They are free to react in any way they wish to… In addition to which, they may go through phases of reaction. Allow them to have their own experience with the information.

7. Do not ask for forgiveness.

Incorporating, “I hope you can forgive me…” into the conversation at any time is about your comfort, not theirs. Don’t say it.

8. Do not put a timeline on when they should be “over it.”

They are going to feel their feelings as long as they need to feel them. Comments along the lines of, “I can’t believe you are still stewing about this…” are not going to change how they feel—they are going to aggravate how they feel. Don’t make them.

9. Do not ask them to keep your secret.

If (and I’m sure this is true) you were keeping a secret for valid reasons, I’m sure they know, or can figure out, what those were. Pointing out that they shouldn’t spread the secret around implies you think they are foolish—and they already feel foolish.

10. Ask, “How can I reassure you moving forward?” – and don’t have an opinion about their response.

In order to feel comfortable with you again, they might need to implement some serious checks and balances… checks and balances that might seem ridiculous/demeaning to you. But—and I can’t say it enough, apparently—this is not about you. This is about them. If you’re serious about mending fences, give them what they need to begin to trust you again.

If you aren’t willing to, or can’t, give them what they need be clear about that, too. Don’t compound the problem by making promises you are not willing to keep. Allow them the dignity of your honesty and the freedom to move forward in a way that they feel comfortable.


For more on the value of piping up, take a look at “Anything Mentionable is Manageable”