Like most people, I dislike difficult conversations and struggle to find the right words when tough, professional issues need to be addressed.
I’ve discovered from past mistakes that it’s usually better to address issues as soon as practical and to work together to resolve problems. I’m impressed when someone comes to me with an issue they have with another party and wants to move forward and resolve it.
Unfortunately, both clients and I have been held back from solutions over the years when someone comes to us to discuss a problem with another party and then ends the dialogue with…
Promise me that you won’t say anything to him/her.
People mean well with this request. They want to be heard, but they don’t want others to overreact. The challenge is that this simple request causes a number of unintended consequences for you that rarely help in the long-run.
Here’s why you are better off skipping this request in tough situations:
It limits what the other party can do.
I recall several situations over the years where one party has come to me about an issue with a peer or colleague and requested I don’t say anything. Sadly, if I honor the request, there is little I can do.
Sometimes people assume that a client or I will just give some broad feedback to the other party or larger team in order to address the issue. This rarely works (as I’ve written about previously) and effectively dumps the problem on the other party, while tying their hands.
It doesn’t give the other party a change to decide.
Almost always when this request has been made of me, it’s come at the end of a conversation. By then, I already know the problem and have already started thinking about future steps we can take to address it. In some cases, I have a professional obligation to address it directly.
When a, “promise me you won’t say anything” request has been made in these situations, it’s frustrating because I don’t get to choose if I want to honor the request. I can’t forget what I just heard anymore than I can put toothpaste back in a tube. It’s a non-choice for me, unless I decide to decline your request and then anger you. Either way, I lose.
It says that you’re more interested in venting.
Clients who have complained about this practice from peers and direct reports over the years usually do so because it’s draining. When you ask for secrecy, it sends the message that you’re more interested in venting than solving the problem. It teaches the the other party that you aren’t ready to take real action.
All of us need to vent. Do it with people who you don’t need to request secrecy from and who aren’t directly involved in the situation (i.e. outside the problem or away from the workplace).
It calls to question how you handle problems.
Anytime I hear requests like this from another party, it always makes me wonder how they are handling other professional and personal conflicts. If I’m being overly cynical, I can’t help but wonder what they’ve said about me to others and then asked for secrecy.
It gives me pause whenever I hear this from someone on whether I’ll trust them to resolve future problems.
It says that you don’t trust me.
Probably the biggest obstacle my clients and I have with this request is that it ultimately says that you don’t trust us. After all, if we have trust, then presumably you know that I’ll do everything in my power to find a resolution that benefits everyone. When you tell me what I can or cannot say later, you are essentially saying, “I don’t trust you to make that determination for yourself.”
If you don’t trust the party you’re seeking help from, either find a party you do trust or skip the conversation all together.
When presented with requests for secrecy, I now usually respond, “What I can promise is that I will work with you to find the best path to address this.”
It’s not appropriate or wise to be an open book about everything in the workplace. It’s equally unwise to ties the hands of the people you seek out to help you move forward. If you trust the other party to help, avoid requests that ultimately prevent you from being the problem-solver you’d like to be.
[reminder]Have you had this request made of you? If so, how did you ultimately address the issue?[/reminder]