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How to Get People to Share Their Secrets With You

The antecedents and consequences of revealing secrets are discussed.

Key points

  • Confiding secrets to others is associated with greater well-being, in part because it elicits social support and improves coping.
  • It is best to confide in nonjudgmental people with whom one has a satisfying relationship characterized by closeness, trust, and loyalty.
  • If you want others to share their secrets with you, be attentive, receptive, warm, nonjudgmental, compassionate, and supportive.

Research suggests the great majority of people (97%, according to one estimate) have a secret. Most of them have more than one (13, on average).

What do people keep secret? The list is long:

Controversial beliefs or activities, unusual behaviors, highly personal experiences, gender identity, sexual orientation/behavior, pregnancy, abortion, romantic crushes, trust violations, plan to surprise someone (e.g., marriage proposal), infidelity or thoughts about cheating, being unhappy in a relationship, mental health problems and trauma, drug abuse or addiction, body image issues, improper work/school behaviors, financial difficulties, doing poorly at school, being unhappy at work, and more.

Naturally, sharing some of these secrets is more consequential than sharing others. For instance, revealing a co-worker’s unique food preferences, work ambition, or personal hobbies will likely have less serious consequences than revealing their history of self-harm or tendency to shoplift.

So, whom do people trust with their deepest secrets? And how does sharing secrets with others affect both the confider and the confidant’s mental health?

For answers to these questions and to learn more about the psychology of secret keeping and revealing, this post will summarize the recent paper by Nguyen and Slepian of Columbia University.

Revealing secrets to others

First, let’s clarify what it means to confide a secret. It means to share with someone a piece of information held back from one or more people.

Therefore, confiding a secret differs from other concepts like:

  • General self-disclosure, such as sharing intimate personal details (e.g., memories of the first kiss).
  • Sharing strong emotions, as in venting.
  • Confession, which involves disclosing information about a wrongdoing to the very individual from whom the information had been deliberately concealed.

How do people decide if they should share a secret? By weighing risks and benefits.

Benefits include guidance, social support, and instrumental help.

Risks include the information becoming public, the speaker’s identity being revealed, and he or she judged, blamed, shamed, or rejected. These negative responses likely pose a bigger risk to low self-esteem and shame-prone individuals and those whose secrets involve unbecoming or immoral behavior.

Whom do we confide in?

We usually open our hearts to people who are good listeners, show interest (e.g., by asking relevant follow-up questions), and willingly offer help. To attentive, receptive, warm, and compassionate individuals.

When a confidante demonstrates compassion and sensitivity, provides tangible help, or offers social support, the confider feels better about having shared the secret, copes more effectively, and experiences better mental health and well-being.

Note, there is a two-way link between revealing secrets and relationship closeness: Revealing secrets to those with whom we feel close builds trust and deepens our relationship, which makes it easier to share other secrets.

Whom do we not confide in?

We rarely share secrets with individuals who are polite. Why? Perhaps because polite listeners appear to concern themselves with social rules and norms than others’ distress and suffering.

We also do not confide in enthusiastic or bubbly people, possibly due to the assumption that they have less experience with distress and suffering or are less willing to help someone with serious matters.

Nor do we share confidential information with people who are able but unwilling to hold a secret. Why wouldn’t a person want to hold a secret? Because it can be an emotional and psychological burden (e.g., limit one’s freedom of expression), particularly for those who are very close to the confider and have an overlapping social network.

These costs are weighed against the benefits of being a confidant: The trust and honesty that characterize sharing a secret can make the confidant feel more important, valued, and empowered.


Revealing others’ secrets

Confiding secrets is risky. Indeed, a quarter of secrets shared, according to one estimate, are not kept.

When are confidants more likely to reveal one’s secrets?

When there is low relationship satisfaction between the two parties or the secret is perceived as immoral and results in feelings of disgust, anger, and outrage in the secret keeper.

Indeed, revealing an immoral secret is a way of punishing the wrongdoer—by warning others about him or her and causing reputational damage.

In summary, a confidant may keep the secret out of loyalty to the confider, or reveal the information to someone else out of honesty and closeness to this third party.

To hold a secret or to share a secret

In summary, compared with habitually keeping secrets to oneself, opening one’s heart to others is associated with greater health and well-being because confiding secrets tends to elicit social and instrumental support.

You are more likely to receive support if you confide in individuals…

  • Who are not judgmental and are less likely to be disgusted or outraged if your secret concerns wrongdoings.
  • With whom you have a highly satisfying relationship (high loyalty and trust).

How to increase the likelihood of people sharing their secrets with you? By being more…

  • Attentive.
  • Assertive.
  • Receptive.
  • Warm.
  • Nonjudgmental.
  • Compassionate.
  • Willing to offer help and support.

Nurturing these and other character strengths (e.g., being forgiving, courageous, kind, grateful, loving, authentic) has the additional benefit of increasing your happiness and improving your mental health.

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