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Sharing Secrets? Choose Your Audience Carefully

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Wednesday, 31 July 2019 03:21 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Choosing Your Audience 

Secrets. Everyone has them. The personal issues people keep to themselves range from traumatic memories, to embarrassing gaffes, to personal proclivities. Yet in many cases, even with the most sensitive information, people crave the opportunity to share their secrets, in order to relieve stress.

In a prior column I discussed the demonstrated value of sharing secrets.

Confiding secrets can be cathartic, liberating, and reduce emotional distress by affording an opportunity to talk through painful issues, problems, or traumatic memories. The challenge is audience selection.

Because secrets, by nature, are private, personal, and sometimes painful, you must choose your audience carefully, in order to have confidence in your confidant.

Double-Check Your Audience 

Interestingly, there appears to be consensus regarding what types of people we choose to confide in. Seeking an audience that is both receptive and reliable, attentive and trustworthy, is often easier said than done depending on your social network.

As a starting point, when sharing sensitive information, trusted friends, family, and spouses can be powerful sounding boards and sources of social support; casual acquaintances are probably not your first choice.

And long gone is the antiquated "strangers on a train" phenomenon, where 30 years ago, we might have shared private details with someone we met while traveling, whom we never expected to see again. Nowadays, people you meet on a train (bus, plane, Uber pool, etc.) will probably be Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections by the end of the journey.

And given the networked world in which we live, after you have unloaded your private baggage, you don´t want to worry about your choice of recipient sharing the information with others (God forbid on social media), or using it against you in some fashion.

So when you need to share a secret, whom should you tell?

Choosing Confidants With Confidence

Consider the people on your contact list, with their respective range of personalities and dispositions. If you had to choose one of them to confide in, whom would you pick? If you can envision one or more good candidates, congratulations on having an excellent support system.

But if no one in particular comes to mind, especially if you have a secret that is particularly delicate, traumatic, or otherwise troublesome to think about, in narrowing the field of potential confidants, what criteria would you use to separate the trusted from the distrusted?

Trusted Confidants: Their Personalities 

Michael L. Slepian and James N. Kirby in a piece entitled "To Whom Do We Confide Our Secrets?" (from 2018) explored the question of what types of people we are most likely to confide in. They focused their predictions on four areas: compassion, politeness, enthusiasm, assertiveness, recognizing that research notes that most variation with respect to interpersonal behavior and experience is reflected in what they describe as their two higher level domains: extraversion and agreeableness.

In their study, Slepian and Kirby asked participants about secrets others had confided in them. They included 14 categories, "(a) infidelity, (b) sexual orientation, (c) abortion, (d) victim of sexual assault, (e) engaged in physical abuse, (f) dealt with mental illness, (g) having a sexually transmitted disease (STD), (h) cheated at work, school, or finances, (i) lost a large sum of money, (j) having a drinking problem, (k) drug abuse, (l) addiction (other than alcohol or drugs), (m) committed a crime, and (n) religious beliefs."

The traits that positively predicted how many secrets the study participants were told were compassion and assertiveness. The traits that negatively predicted how many secrets they were told were enthusiasm and politeness.

Breaking down these personality traits, they note that both compassion and politeness are related to agreeableness. But the traits have very different definitions.

They describe compassion as "empathy and desire to help," and politeness as “concern with social norms and social rules."

They further note that both assertiveness and enthusiasm are related to extraversion, but these traits are defined very differently also. They describe assertiveness as "having the agency and drive to help," whereas enthusiasm is “positive sociality.” Many people might be reluctant to share a secret with an extroverted friend or colleague who is the proverbial "life of the party," and be more comfortable disclosing to someone who is more serious and less gregarious.

Slepian and Kirby note that unlike assertiveness, enthusiasm specifically involves experiencing positive emotions. They suggest that future research should examine whether people prefer not to confide in enthusiastic people because they perceive them as less qualified to handle a serious, unpleasant issue, or to avoid "bringing them down."

Judging Receptive, Reliable Receivers

Although apparently many people feel most comfortable confiding in compassionate, assertive individuals, only you are able to accurately judge your support system. If you decide to share a secret, make sure you exercise caution in choosing confidants, utilizing both discretion, and discernment.

This article was first published in Psychology Today.

Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 4,000 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.

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Although apparently many people feel most comfortable confiding in compassionate, assertive individuals, only you are able to accurately judge your support system. If you decide to share a secret, make sure you exercise caution
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Wednesday, 31 July 2019 03:21 PM
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