In confidence

March 27, 2008

One of the unchallenged tenets of consultancy is the concept of confidentiality. In the course of assignments I am often assumed to hold a confidential space and for many years I accepted this principle as a central hypothesis in my work. While the concept of confidentiality is always discussed in therapeutic relationships, I am finding myself more and more curious about why consulting clients are not as ready to have conversations about this concept in the same way. In more recent times I have also become more interested in the concept of confidentiality and how it is constructed as a mechanism for the distribution of power within organisations.
As a society I see an ongoing struggle between what is useful in terms of confidentiality and what is sacrificed as a result of it. The discourse here in Ireland surrounding the Catholic Church and the various tribunals etc – have all contributed to new interpretations of what confidentiality means and constructs. In each of these situations, power and confidentiality appear to sit side by side.
So I’ve been developing a series of hypotheses about confidentiality and consulting
1. The first is that my role as consultant is often defined by the confidentiality I offer – as though I “own” the concept and bring it “to” my clients. My credibility in the organisation can be defined by the way in which I manage and navigate the concept i.e. I retain sole responsibility for it.
2. The second is that the stories that are revealed “in confidence” are perceived to contain the “truth” of the organisation – those stories revealed openly as part of the lived experience of clients are merely one level of engagement.
3. The third is that those who reveal the most “dramatic” stories in a confidential setting can be perceived to be the most “honest” members of an organisation and maintain a powerful position as a result of their ability to “say it as it is”.
As a consultant I am often invited to hear the stories, be influenced by them and synthesise the meaning into something more objective and less personal. In many cases this may result in little sense of ownership and participation on the part of those interviewed in conversations concerning the co-constructed nature of challenges and more importantly the co-constructed nature of moving forward. This places the consultant in a powerful position within organisations, particularly as we continue to live in a culture that values information as currency.
So in recent times I have opened up this whole issue of confidentiality as part of the contracting phase with clients and begun to question what confidentiality means and how I am being used as a container for the client’s secrets. I have also begun to reframe the conversation about confidentiality by asking these kinds of questions:
• What are the limits of confidentiality?
• What would a ‘safe enough’ environment look like?
• How can we jointly create a safe enough space in which we can tell the stories that need to be told and heard in order to move forward?
• How is power distributed in this organisation and how does confidentiality contribute to that?
• How can we begin to distribute empowerment in this organisation?
Tracking and discussing the shifts in the power relationships with clients is a way of holding power ‘for them’ as distinct from ‘instead of them’. It may be necessary for me to hear and hold confidential content while at the same time exploring what confidentiality means for this client and how each of us are being made and re-made in each others’ presence. I now welcome a richer conversation about confidentiality – one that addresses content and context and hopefully one that challenges a few ‘taken for granted’ stories about the power of secret keeping.

6 People reacted on this

  1. Has any one ever thought about turning the corporate pyramid on its head.
    The strongest is at the bottom and they support the board.
    the board supports the executive team
    so on down until
    the first line managers support their staff
    the staff support the customer.
    I would have thought that the strongest and best paid should support those that do the work!

  2. Hi Peter – I think that model is already working in the voluntary sector and I’ve seen it work exceptionally well in arts and cultural organisations but these companies are ones were there’s no shareholding capital so that context is an important marker I guess..what are your own views?

  3. Wow, Annette…this is one of the most thoughtful (and thought-provoking) pieces on confidentiality that I’ve read. You’re absolutely dead-on that the notion of confidentiality has gone unchallenged…often to the detriment of the clients that we serve. And by not challenging it, we never really can get to some of the root causes of organizational problems, namely trust and the power dispersion that you talk about.
    I hope there’s more of your thinking on the way about this topic. As someone beginning to do more consulting, this is immensely valuable.

  4. Thanks Chris – glad it provoked some thinking…I’ve just finished talking with Johnnie Moore and Matt Moore about some of this stuff so I’ll put up the podcast later today.

  5. Dear Annette, you might find Evan Imber Blacks book on secrecy in families and family therapy useful. It helped me understand more about secrecy and confidentiality/privacy, and how information can move from one to the other depending on context.

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