We can’t talk about how we could do things better around here
We can’t talk about what isn’t working
We can’t talk about the countless opportunities we ignore
We can’t talk about what hurts
We can’t talk about dignity
We can’t talk about how to make magic happen
We can’t talk to our boss, our employees, our board, our investors
We can’t talk about the things we can’t talk about
That’s a shame.
—Seth Godin, We can’t talk about it
One of the reasons we feel we can’t talk about things is that we are scared about who might hear—people who have, or might have, power or influence of some kind over us, like our boss (“You’re fired!”) or colleagues (“He’s weird!”)
Even if we’re at a meeting where none of these people are present, we’re unlikely to say certain things if we’re worried that, somehow, what we say gets back to these people.
Which is why one of the ground rules I ask everyone to agree to at the start of my conferences is about confidentiality:
“What we discuss at this conference will remain confidential. What we share here, stays here.”
I explain that you can still talk about what happened in general terms (“Most participants thought that implementing the new regulations would lead to increased airline security.”), but not in a way that directly implicates an individual (“John Smith said that the new regulations were just security theatre.”)
In the fourteen years since I introduced this ground rule, no one has ever refused to abide by it. And, to my knowledge, no one has ever breached this form of confidentiality.
There’s no ultimate guarantee, of course, that everyone will always honor this agreement. When we share something intimate, at that moment we are trusting those around us. Each person has to decide whether they are prepared to take a risk. Sometimes they will remain quiet. But my observations over the years have led me to believe that this ground rule makes the environment safer for many attendees, with the consequence that some of them will share important sensitive things that would otherwise remain unsaid.
We can talk about it, if we feel safe enough. Explaining and obtaining agreement on a confidentiality ground rule can take a minute at the start of an event. In my experience, it’s time well spent.
Photo attribution: Flickr user lewishamdreamer