1. General Christian

Confidentiality, Anonymity, Privacy and Healthy Communication

           This last Sunday our lectionary passage was the one in which Jesus talks about how you are to talk to people directly when you are upset with them.  We are not to talk ABOUT people, but TO people, one on one, when we are upset.  If that doesn’t work, we can take someone along as a “witness”, not as someone to back up our claim, or to be our voice for us, or to defend us, or to interfere in anyway.  They come as a witness.  Why?  Because we don’t always hear one another well.  I’d actually take that a step farther and say we rarely hear each other well, especially when we are upset.  But when there is another person present, we tend to hear better.  It is almost as if their ears, and their way of hearing extend out to us and enable us to hear through more clearly, if only a little bit.  A witness is a gift to both parties because both can hear better in the presence of a third person, assuming that person is able to truly be a “witness” rather than someone who is taking sides.

There are many things that can be said about all of this.  My last sermon focused on gossip and why it is so harmful, especially if given power.  But today I want to take that a step further because I realize people easily become confused about what is gossip versus what is processing.  And more, what is confidentiality versus what is anonymity.  And what is therefore healthy in different situations.

Do we need to process through what we will say when we do talk to people with whom we are upset?  Sometimes we do.  It helps us to think aloud about what we will say and how we will say it.  It also can help us to talk through whether or not we are really upset about something or whether we have taken offense when none was meant, intended or even an appropriate response to what was said or done.  But there is a difference between processing and gossiping.

1. Are we talking about the problem because we plan to address it and need to work through how we will do that (processing) or are we talking about it to try to garner support for our side, for our position, while discrediting, devaluing, or disempowering the other person (gossiping)?

2. Are we sharing a story that is ours to work through (processing) or are we sharing someone else’s story that really has very little to do with us (gossiping)?

3. Am I talking to someone who will keep what I share to themselves and who is able to recognize that all stories have more than one side and that I am only sharing my own in order to think through my future responses (processing), or are we talking to someone who will spread around what I say, contribute to the creation of schisms, or feel the need to “take up our cause” which disempowers me in my ability to repair and tackle my issue directly with another (gossiping)? 

         These are not small or insignificant questions that we should ask ourselves when we are talking with others.  These questions are vitally important to the health of a community and how we move through.

       Then we come to the question of anonymity vs confidentiality.  Confidentiality is the keeping of another’s story to ourselves.  It is the decision to honor what someone tells us as simply and wholly between that person and us.  Confidentiality is important in that it protects a person’s story, allows a person to share their experiences in a place and in a way that is safe, honors the reality that someone’s story is theirs and only theirs to share.

      Anonymity has to do more with sharing what was said or what occurred but not revealing who said it or did it.  Pastors tend to use “anonymity” when they preach stories.  They often share stories without revealing who the stories involve.  It is extremely important that when this is done, it is done in a way that does not lead the listeners to “figure out” or even to try to guess who the story was really about.  For this reason, I personally only use stories about people my congregation does not know and would not meet.  12-step programs also have a code of anonymity.  This allows for people to use and pass on stories that have helped them heal, but to do so in a way that preserves the privacy of individuals, that does not ever reveal their identity.  

        In these contexts, both confidentiality and anonymity have their place.  People usually do not have a problem understanding confidentiality, though sometimes they forget to uphold or honor it.  “You never told me not to tell” is a common excuse for passing along another person’s story.  But the truth is, we should never pass along other people’s stories, but should assume confidentiality when a story is told to us that is about the teller and is only the teller’s experience and story to tell.  

       Anonymity is harder for people.  People often use the word “anonymity” and sometimes the word “confidentiality” as a way to pass along critiques, judgements, and accusations, without revealing where they originated.  But this is extremely damaging and unhealthy for a number of reasons:

1. We are called to be communities where people have, claim and use their voices to speak their own truths.  “Anonymity” in the sense of passing along a critique someone else has told us does not empower other people to speak for themselves, to own their truth, and to deal with their issues, complaints, and difficulties directly.

2. When comments are “anonymous”, it is difficult to get a handle on how serious, pervasive or widespread the critique or problem really is.  The person or groups receiving negative feedback can feel that everyone is against them, and that everyone does not have the courage to speak to them directly. They can start feeling anxious or negative towards the group as a whole.  This usually backfires and has the opposite result intended.  Instead of the problem then being addressed and worked on, those receiving the critique often can become entrenched in their behavior, either from a place of feeling, “nothing I do is right” or from a place of being truly unclear about what is being asked.  

3.      Often there are people on both sides of an divisive issue who are unhappy with a decision.  If only one voice is passed along, and it is anonymously quoted, a clear picture of the reality of the situation is not being offered. 

4. If a person offering a critique is “anonymous” there is no way to ask for clarity, to work together to bridge, understand, reconcile or work through the problem.  

5. Hearing a story second or third hand is a guarantee that what we are hearing is not completely what was intended or meant.  We all hear, understand and take in comments differently.  So, whatever someone else tells us will change slightly in the re-telling, regardless of our best intentions.  Encouraging people to speak their truth directly allows for communication first hand, and offers up the possibility of truly working through problems in healthy ways.

        The basic rule of healthy church communities in dealing with complaints: if a person does not own their own words, the critique should be discounted.  In other words, the anonymous letters that come to a church go directly into the garbage.  This is also true of anonymous comments.  If a person is unwilling to stand behind their words, they should not be spoken.  Period.  Using “anonymity” as a shield in the church allows for gossip to run rampant, it does not encourage people to claim their own power and voice, and it creates turmoil, dissention, and rifts in communities.  

          So what can we do about this?

1. If someone has something they want you to pass on to someone else, it is best to encourage that person to say it directly.  Offer to be the “witness” standing with them if they are nervous about speaking their truth, but empower them to speak with their own voice.

2. If you are a representative for a group and they are telling you as that representative, make it clear that you will tell the group who it is who has made the original comment.  If they are uncomfortable with having their name passed on, that says one of three things:

      a. They aren’t comfortable because they know or suspect that part of what they are saying is false.

     b. They do not feel the church or group is “safe” for them to speak their truth.  If this is the case, it needs to be addressed.

     c. They want the complaint to appear more general than it is. If there is no name attached to the complaint, then it looks like it might be more than one person.

3. Be consistent about all of this.

        The unfortunate truth is that when you try to change a long-standing pattern in a community, there will be push-back.  Change does not happen overnight.  And people do not tend to like change, especially when it involves changing something that is basic to a group’s culture.  People may stop sharing their complaints and feelings all together for a while in reaction to the new policy.  But people are not good at holding on to their feelings over the long run, and my experience is that communities not only adjust, but come to appreciate the change.  They will learn that their voices are valued, they will feel empowered to speak for themselves and own their own words, and they will be more thoughtful about their complaints and critiques, taking time before speaking them (always a good thing for any community!).  

        I know none of this is easy.  But we are called to be in community together.  And that means working hard to hear, support, speak and be brothers and sisters to one another.  Setting policies that encourage direct communication and bridge building is just one step in becoming healthier, thriving communities.
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