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March 20, 2019

The Hidden Costs of Confidentiality

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In this Going Deeper—and I really am going deeper, maybe too deep for some of you— I want to explore what’s underneath our desire for confidentiality, what we get from it, and what it might be costing us. I think there is great learning in this exploration.

A key component of conscious leadership is learning how to have conscious relationships. Part of conscious relationship is making ourselves known by revealing, becoming more transparent and authentic, and choosing vulnerability. Almost to a person, this choice brings some heart palpitations and sweaty palms. Revealing often makes us nervous, apprehensive, and fearful.

One of the first exercises we do with a Forum or a corporate team retreat is to invite everyone to complete the sentence, “If you knew me you’d know ……” People are free to fill in the empty space with anything they want. Some people tentatively put a toe in the water and others dive in head first. If you were there, you’d hear people say things like:

“If you knew me, you’d know . . .”

  • I love photography
  • My dog means everything to me.
  • I’m happier in this job than in any other job I’ve had.
  • Some days I really don’t want to get out of bed.
  • I’m upset we hired the new VP of engineering.
  • I hate this kind of exercise.

After a round or two of these sentence completions we can almost guarantee that someone in the group will raise the question, “What about confidentiality?”

When the question is raised we ask the group what they’d like the agreement to be around confidentiality. Certain groups want confidentiality to be absolute: nothing is to be talked about outside of the group with anyone at anytime including with other members of the group when we’re not in group. This is the ultimate what’s shared here stays here! Some groups are more flexible: everyone can share their own experience but they can’t talk about anyone else’s experience. And once in a while someone will say, you don’t have to keep anything confidential about me. At which point others in the group appear a bit shocked and skeptical.

If you were in such a group, what level of confidentiality would you want?

In the simplest of terms what drives most confidentiality conversations is fear, specifically, the fear of losing control.

The belief is that if a group member reveals what I say outside of the group I’ll lose control of what people think about me, and how they respond and react to me. I’ll lose control of the narrative.

It’s one thing if I choose to tell you about the content of my life. It’s a totally different thing if you tell others about it.

This fear is natural and normal. It’s evolutionary and primal, probably with a biological basis. When we were hunter-gatherers we depended on being part of the tribe for survival. Being approved of was a life and death matter. If we were judged and rejected, ostracized, or pushed away from the campfire our chances of survival dropped dramatically. So it makes total sense that we don’t want to be talked about in a way that could threaten our reputation, our identity, and our sense of approval and safety.

All of this to say that we understand when people want strict rules about confidentiality. We’re happy to create agreements around confidentiality when a group still wants them after exploring what there is to learn.

Yet if safety is what we truly seek, confidentiality only gives us a sense of safety.

We feel like we’re in control and that’s a good feeling, but in reality we’re really not safe. We feel safe because we get to stay in control, or at least imagine we’re in control, of what others think about us and how they treat us. But as long as we’re afraid of being found out, of being known and seen for who we really are, we’re not ultimately safe.

The 12 Step recovery movement has a great saying: “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” Those of us who have kept secrets, especially shame-based secrets, know all too well the truth of this principle. I’d like to amend it for this conversation: We’re only as safe as we are known. Telling the truth and having the truth known about us sets us free from the fear of being found out.

Candor and transparency are the unshakeable foundation of true safety.

Now to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we will be liked, loved, valued, wanted, respected, or esteemed when we are known. Although when people like and love you when they really know you, you can more reliably relax and trust the love. When we are fully known and there’s nothing more to be found out, we can begin the powerful practice of sourcing safety from within. This is where real safety lies, and where the deeper work of consciousness is leading us.

Whatever your desires for confidentiality are, they make sense to us. If you want absolute confidentiality, we get it. Your fear and desire to control how you are seen by others is what you need right now in your journey. We want you to have that. And if you’re beginning to let go of controlling how others see you, starting to move from pseudo safety to a more reliable safety that is beyond the approval of others, we get that too. As is always the case, we simply want you to be as self-aware as possible about what you’re doing and what’s motivating you to do it.

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