Philosophy of Confidentiality

As we love people, they share and disclose themselves and their lives. How should we act in light of our received knowledge? There are three levels of consideration.

First do not share these details.

Be aware of the trust you have been given. Be reliably discrete; make it clear you will keep confidences.

Listening to someone talk is about helping them become a new person. Part of that is leaving stuff behind, or only bringing it up when it is supportive and builds maturity.

I’m part of many spheres of influence, in contact with many different people in different stages. In an average week I will have communicated in a meaningful way with twenty people. So I’ll often refer to someone broadly – by mentioning I’ve had a recent conversation on a particular topic, without identifying the person the conversation was with. It is also why I’ve chosen to use fake names here. With Felicity and Jonathan, with Agnes and Bernard we consider the broad implications of situations and how to love, rather than stick with personal details.

Second disclose information for their benefit.

Under 18

The most obvious situation is when you receive information of past, current or future harm for someone under 18.
Listen and support the young person.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Explain you need to pass the information on.

Contact appropriate authorities. In Queensland you can do this online or call Child Safety After Hours Service Centre on 1800 177 135 or (07) 3235 9999.

Over 18

Do the police need to be involved?  Do they need a broader circle of informed people? Does someone else need to know to help them? Is it easier for you to tell people or be present? [More thoughts on reporting below].

Ways to disclose information for their benefit.
A) Be present: Give them your support, your presence also creates the opportunity for processing babble.

Felicity was telling her family about her pregnancy. I was present to talk into the pause. The moment between hearing surprising or intense details and then responding. I provided the buffer time by speaking.

Felicity: And I’m pregnant.

Milika: She’s 12 weeks pregnant. She’s managed fairly well so far. She plans to keep working until June, then work part time until her due date in early September.

B) Be telling: Someone asks – how is Felicity? The importance to stop and consider how to answer the question. You have private information. Have you talked with them about what is appropriate to disclose? Sometimes it is much easier for another person to share the details of your struggle. At various times Stephen and I take turns calling or messaging the family to give an update on our spouse.

How is Felicity?
Milika: She’s doing well in her pregnancy. Thankfully her morning sickness is managed now and she should be able to finish her semester of study before the birth.

How is Jonathan?
Milika: He is really struggling at the moment. Jonathan wanted me to tell you that he is seeing a psychologist and seeking to manage his depression. He doesn’t have the energy to see people, but a occasional text message or email would be appreciated.

C) Be reporting: Sometimes struggles happen to people that need sharing. You may be obligated to share information. No one has the ultimate right to confidentiality. You need to love other people as well as the person you’re helping. This is important in churches and ministries, if something may disqualify someone from leadership or require immediate support. Where does the responsibility for reporting lie?
[I’m still working out my framework for this concept, so more thoughts coming later.]


Third  disclose information for your benefit.

Loving people can be draining. Perhaps we need to talk with someone. That’s OK. Ask the person if it’s OK to share their story with someone. Or talk in broad categories.

Often I’ll chat about this obliquely.

“This week I chatted with someone who is separating from their spouse. It makes me so sad. Broken marriage is always hard. Other people seem to take sides, can’t they just see it’s okay to say it’s sad and I’m sorry for your pain.”


“I just had a hard conversation, give me a hug.”

Or with Felicity’s knowledge

“Felicity has cancer. It’s aggressive and she starts chemo next week. What can we do to help?”

Or with Jonathan’s knowledge

“Jonathan’s struggling with the extra stress of deadlines and his bullying boss at work. Could you please take him for a beer or a walk or something?”

Or without their knowledge (be careful with this one but it is a valid situation)

“Hey – Felicity is struggling with self harm at the moment. I’m trying to stay in consistent contact with her. But it’s hard. Please keep asking me about it.”

When you are disclosing information for your benefit – talk to people outside the circle. Your struggling friend does not need to hear how much loving them is making you struggle.

So my current philosophy of confidentiality is

  • keep things private but not secret
  • seek to balance privacy with need for sharing
  • keep asking/telling the person when I share information.

    But please be thoughtful about what details you are sharing. Pause – then disclose.

I shared some similar thoughts on Clichés about Caring…that ring true.

2 thoughts on “Philosophy of Confidentiality

  1. Thought prompted by your last point on sharing information for your own benefit –
    I’ve had to learn when it’s okay (or not) to receive private information from others and how to navigate this well before too much is shared. Secrets create a bond that may not be helpful. What if I hear something that’s not meant to be shared with my husband – is it (always, ever, never?) appropriate for me to hold somebody else’s privacy above the intimacy of my marriage relationship? Or what if somebody wants me to keep confidence from a mutual friend – consider ahead of time the damage that could be caused to relationships later if loyalties are divided. I’ve been thinking through appropriate ways to be a safe space for people’s private information, in tension with finding polite ways to say “I’m glad you trust me but I will not feel comfortable keeping this hidden from X person, so you might prefer to confide in somebody less involved”. I used to hold the ‘specialness’ of being somebody’s confidant very high without proper consideration for the health of relationships.

    • Yes, marriage adds another level of complexity.
      I’ve had friends say ‘I presumed you told Stephen, don’t you share everything?’
      or ‘Please don’t tell Stephen.’

      Often Stephen will hear ‘Felicity is struggling, I’ll be spending a lot of time with her.’

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