The first thing to know before you learn how to ask someone to keep a secret is whether or not you should be asking them to keep your secret. They can hold extraordinary power over people, which means that they must be handled responsibly.
If you want someone to keep a secret, the following line works great in almost every scenario: “You know about [such-and-such]. It would make me feel a lot better if I knew that you were not going to tell anyone else. Would you please promise me that you will keep it a secret?”
Things to be aware of
Speak plainly and do not take advantage of the trust shown by anyone willing to conceal what you have told them in confidence. Vagueness concerning secrets can cause costly confusion, so be sure that the other participant is aware of the exact nature of the secret and the scope of your intentions for who they are allowed to tell.
Secrets can damage personal relationships and have a significant impact on business developments. No matter what situation you are in, they must be treated seriously and with deep consideration. They have the potential to cause significant real-world harm under the right circumstances.
Even if you feel that the information is not very important, the fact that you are keeping it from other people may cause them to feel differently about you if they ever find out. This is one reason why making sure that your secret is kept safe is so important.
You can stress this with your confidant by saying something like…
“I feel like if anyone else knew about this, I would be treated differently. Please, can you keep this secret for me?”
If they know how nervous you are, then they may be more likely not to share when otherwise they might be tempted.
The language of secrets should be clear, concise, and everyone involved should be aware of any consequences that might take place if they were to be revealed to others.
A comprehensive evaluation of approximately 10,000 survey results by Columbia University revealed that most people who are forced to conceal information either against their will or voluntarily would experience significant instances of intrusive thoughts about those hidden facts.
This can lead to an increase in stress, anxiety, and a desire to tell others so that the pressure is relieved. Keeping things concealed from others is a little harder than most people realize and can affect your mental health.
There are ethics involved with keeping a secret, no matter how big or small. Secrets can get people fired, killed, emotionally scarred, or embarrassed.
You have an ethical responsibility not to keep secrets that will result in the subject being physically or emotionally abused. When in doubt about the ethics of the information, you are asking them not to pass on it, think of it from an outside perspective.
If someone else told you similar information, would you be concerned, disgusted, frightened, or would you feel confident that nothing untoward was taking place?
This is a question you will need to ask yourself before sharing with someone new or requiring them to keep it secret.
When you are not sure of the ethics, you can always share your uncertainty with your confidante. You can do this by using something along the lines of the following.
“You know that thing I told you about [so-and-so/such-and-such]? I would like to make sure nobody else knows about it, but I was wondering what your thoughts were.”
“I don’t think anyone else should be aware of [so-and-so/such-and-such], and I would appreciate it if you could not tell anyone else. How do you feel about that?”
Giving Your Consent
If you have allowed someone else to know something about you and you would like them never to share it or only share it with a handful of people, you need to make sure that they understand you require them to get your consent before sharing it.
Keeping it safe can only happen if you are open and communicate clearly about expectations and why it is so important, they do not relay that intelligence to other people without your knowledge.
Here are a few lines you can use to ask them to gain consent before attempting to reveal your secret.
“I admire you for not saying anything about [such-and-such] to anyone, and I was wondering if you could continue to keep it a secret for me or at least ask first before telling anyone else?”
“I would very much appreciate it if you asked before telling anyone else about what I just confided in you. Could you do that for me, please?”
“I’m not sure what would happen if anyone else found out about [such-and-such/so-and-so], so could you maybe ask me first before sharing it with anyone?”
If Someone Knows Something About You
When you are the subject of the concealed information, then it can be nerve-wracking to know that someone out there may, at any moment, reveal to others something you would rather be kept under wraps. You can use this to your advantage.
Sharing your anxiety with the person who knows about it will help them understand the risks at stake.
You can use lines similar to the following.
“You know that I did [such-and-such]. It would make me feel a lot better if I knew that you were not going to tell anyone else. Would you please promise me that you will keep it a secret?”
“I feel a bit nervous about [such-and-such], and I think I would feel a lot better if you made sure no one else found out about it.”
“Please, do not let anyone else know about [such-and-such] because I think it would reflect poorly on me, and I am trying to do better.”
If Someone Knows Something About Someone Else
The verbal requests that you make will be slightly different if you are asking someone to keep a secret that they know about someone else. In that case, you and the other secret holder carry a weight of responsibility because what you know might affect the subject’s life.
You can try saying lines like those below.
“I think that not letting anyone else know about [such-and-such/so-and-so] would be the best course of action at this point. Don’t you agree?”
“It might not be our place to say anything about [so-and-so/such-and-such], so maybe we should try and forget about it.”
Through their very nature, personal relationships are prone to secrets and private shared moments. You should not take advantage of a friend or family member or assume they are willing to hold your secret.
There are personal boundary lines that should not be infringed when it comes to asking someone to keep a secret. You want to use the knowledge that you have gained to determine if and when you should share your secret.
A study in the 2017 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that it is not the content of the secret so much as the stress of needing to continually conceal it from others that tends to affect the secret keepers.
Before subjecting a friend or family member to that kind of stress, think about what it will be like for them to have to carry that knowledge around with them for the rest of their lives.
Here is how you can delicately broach the subject with friends and family members.
“Do you remember [such-and-such] about [so-and-so]? Could you keep that under wraps?”
“You know that secret that I told you about [so-and-so/such-and-such]? I really need you to help me make sure no one else finds out about it, please.”
Power dynamics are fundamental when it comes to keeping and sharing secrets within a professional environment. This is because there are a lot of opportunities for unintentional and intentional blackmail or bullying.
When discussing secrets in a professional relationship, you will want to think carefully about the possible consequences first.
Below are ways in which you can broach the topic.
“You know about [so-and-so/such-and-such], and I would greatly appreciate it if you would keep that between ourselves.”
“Is there a way that you could perhaps keep [so-and-so/such-and-such] strictly between us? That would make things go a lot smoother.”
Groups vs. Individuals
When high numbers of people are involved, it is highly unlikely that everyone will be able to keep it to themselves. So, there must be an assumption that at least one group member will ignore your request to keep it secret. This is because the more people are involved in a secret, the less responsibility each individual feels.
When it is just one person receiving the information, they have full responsibility for keeping it hidden from others, but in a group, that is not the case. Lack of discretion becomes more likely the more individuals are added to the group.
Here are several lines you can ask a group to keep something concealed.
“We all know about [so-and-so/such-and-such], but I think it would be safer if we were the only ones who knew. Could you all please keep this a secret?”
“We all have a responsibility to make sure that no one else finds out about this. Please, remember that if you ever feel tempted to disclose it to anyone else.”
Sophie Hammond is a journalist, psychologist, and freelance speechwriter for people in politics and business. She lives on the edge of the Rocky Mountains with her dog and a lifetime supply of books. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through nature or journaling at a coffee shop.