I used to have a big mouth when I was a kid. A huge mouth. When people would tell me secrets, I used to tell them to other people right away. I was a jerk.

And when I was a teen, one specific person told me that she couldn’t trust me to not tell things to others. I’d realized she hadn’t told me something crucial to her, and we were good friends at the time. That made me really sad and upset for weeks….
Until I realized she was right. And then I realized I needed to change my ways. And did immediately.

And it was hard. Until with practice, it became easy.

So it only fits that I went into a career in which I can never tell anyone anything about anyone. Coaching.

The first phone call I ever have with any client or potential client, I tell that person, “Anything you say will be only between me and you. If I’m going to refer you to another coach, I will clear with you in advance what I can say about you (typically describe your career and what you’re interested in coaching for).” Beyond that, I don’t say a word. I make that clear up front. And that’s how it goes. And to do that, I’ve had to get comfortable not telling things about people.

I know someone who works in a sensitive area. Let’s call this person a lawyer in a discreet practice. I took a wonderful example from him. He never recognizes a client in public. If this lawyer is sitting next to his client at a restaurant, he won’t say hi. He won’t make eye contact. He won’t even smile. And he tells his clients this in advance. A lot of his clients are celebrities. And people often don’t want other people to know what they’re coming in for. I love that.

Some coaches talk about their clients: “I’m coaching so-and-so, and I’m coaching so-and-so.” Unless the client himself tells people that he’s being coached by me, nobody will ever know who my clients are. This is why it’s difficult when I’m contacted by media or press. I go to my clients and ask them if they’d be interested in this press opportunity (when the press wants to cover, for example, entrepreneurs being coached by a positive psychology coach), but it’s often hard because I won’t describe what my clients are doing except in a general way unless the client also wants to be interviewed. But clients do tell their friends they are working with an Executive Coach, and they talk about me. So, yes, the information can come out, but not from me.

Why do I say all this? Because it’s hard to keep confidences. Unless you know that that’s your rule. … That’s it. It’s my rule, There are no questions. I just keep confidences and don’t tell anything to anyone.

But what if you have an amazing story? Or what if you want to share the experience of one client with another client because they are related experiences?

“My friend Emily”

This is my answer. If I want to tell a story about a client that will not identify them, I will say, “I have another client who was also going through job interviews right around the December bonus season. Let’s call my client Emily. Emily found out that she could do job interviews in the early morning by phone because she was applying to jobs in Europe. Maybe that’s something you could go since you’re looking for jobs in London while living in NY.”

If I want to tell a story about a friend, same thing. “Oh, I know what you mean about messing up socially in front of your boss. I have this one friend. I’ll call her Emily. Emily was once at a Christmas party, and she….” Fine. No problem. No way this friend could identify your “Emily” friend. And if you think the friend might be able to identify your “Emily,” then see suggestion #5 below.

Look at my examples above: “when I was a teen, one specific person….” and “Let’s call this person a lawyer in a discreet practice.” The lawyer could be a lawyer or someone who deals with sensitive information. And the teen example doesn’t give away anything personal about my friend.

In short, YOUR WORD = YOU. If you break your word, or talk about people, or spread gossip, YOUR WORD gets broken down. Your social capital goes down the drain. YOU become less trustworthy and less desirable to talk to. All you have is your name in this life. Keep it clean. Keep it spotless. Keep it trustworthy.

How to talk about secret confessions:

  1. Don’t mention identifying information.
    You may not want to say, “I have a friend who’s a laser surgeon” or “I have a friend who works at the Department of Energy.” Those are identifying. “A doctor” or “works for the government” is less identifying. “A friend” is even less identifying.
  2. Don’t say where you physically were when you talked to the person.
    “When I was visiting my friend in Florida, he told me…” The friend you’re talking to may know your friend in Florida. “Oh, Richard?” “Doh!”
  3. Be careful about “he” and “she.”
    Here’s how I get around this. I say, “A friend of mine told me this story. Let’s call my friend Emily.” I always use the name Emily. Even if it is a guy. It’s easy for me because I have practice doing this, but it will be hard the first few times you try to explain a story about a guy by saying, “So I was talking to Emily and he – she said that her boss was telling her to work 100 hours a week. Her mom was sick at the time, and Emily needed to visit her mom often. Here’s how she handled the situation….”
  4. Time frames can be identifying.
    If Yahoo wanted to buy your friend’s company in 2003 but the deal fell through, maybe it’s better not to mention 2003. If you don’t want to give out someone’s identity, just be aware that time frames – like locations – can identify a situation.
  5. Most importantly, DON’T TELL the story if you have even the slightest hunch that this could result in something uncomfortable.
    Trust your gut. If you have a sense that someone could be unhappy with you telling this story, DO NOT TELL THE STORY. It’s just that simple. This is part of being a confidant. This is part of being a friend.

And you can always talk about your friend Emily.
It’ll be interesting to see a bunch of Emily friends popping up.

One Comment

  1. Rebecca
    Posted Tuesday January 17, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Loved this~ I have recently learned my lesson the hard way, I appreciate the advice for the future :)