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Confidential information

Confidential Information – What to Say When You Can’t Say Anything

by | Feb 5, 2024 | By Karin Hurt and David Dye, powerful phrases, Winning Well |

Handle confidential information with candor and care to build trust

It can feel like a trap. Someone asks you a direct question about confidential information. Maybe it’s a personnel matter. A sensitive business negotiation or a product launch. In all these scenarios, there are sound ethical reasons for the information to remain secure. If you tell the person what you know, you violate confidentiality. But if you lie to them, you violate their trust.

Confidentiality Conundrums

Are you tempted to share private information because it feels like a shortcut to building intimacy and connection? Ultimately, this doesn’t work because every time you violate confidentiality, you tell the person you’re talking to that they can’t trust you with critical information. Your word is only as good as the next person who you want to like you.

Another challenge of confidential information is that it creates uncertainty. That uncertainty can erode your team’s morale and productivity if you don’t address it. So how can you resolve these conflicts, maintain your team’s morale, and your leadership credibility?

What to Say to Address Confidential Information with Candor and Care

The best way to handle confidential information is with all the clarity you can bring to the conversation.confidential information - protect sensitive info

Be upfront about what you can and cannot talk about. Reaffirm your commitment to the other person or people who asked you about it and look for ways to support them or help them with what they need. Make the connection that your discretion now means they can count on you in the future.

Here are some specific phrases you can use to build trust with a combination of appropriate discretion and honesty.

1) “I protect sensitive information. You can count on me to…”

The best time to address confidential information is before you have any. Tell your team exactly what to expect and why you will handle those matters that way. For example, you might say something like:

“There will be times when you or someone else in the company has a personal or performance issue that is confidential. I will not discuss those situations with the team or anyone else. Your privacy is important and you can count on me to respect it.”

2) “I understand this can feel frustrating (or that you’re curious)…”

We’ve had team members get upset with us when we wouldn’t discuss a colleague’s performance issue or sudden absence from the team. The uncertainty created by their absence was unnerving and people naturally looked for answers. You can address this concern and curiosity directly. Again, this is best to do before the situation arises. For example:

“I understand it can feel frustrating when someone isn’t here and it’s natural to want more information. And, in those moments, I will continue to respect your privacy. You can count on me to do that.”

3) “I’m sorry, but I’m not able to talk about that.”

There will be times when you have to answer a question directly. A statement like this combines caring and candor. You honor your commitment to not discuss the confidential information while also maintaining your integrity with the person who asked.

4) “You can trust that if you’re ever in a similar situation, I won’t talk about it then, either.”

When someone continues to ask you to disclose confidential information, this phrase can help them understand why you will not discuss the issue. It builds trust, even if they feel frustrated at the moment.

5) “Here’s what I can tell you…”

In the absence of information, people often fill in the blanks with all sorts of stories and error-filled conclusions. The antidote to uncertainty is clarity. Be clear about everything you can discuss. For example:

“I can’t discuss that, but I can tell you that if there were ever an issue with your performance, you would hear it directly from me right away. You don’t have to worry about surprises.”

6) “Let’s schedule time to talk about this on [date].”

If the information might become public at a later date, you could say, “That’s something I can’t talk about right now, but let’s come back to it next Friday and I’ll keep you updated with everything I can.”

7) “How else can I help you? Are there other questions I can answer for you?”

Build trust and maintain your connection to team members by continuing to give them all the support they need, apart from the confidential information. This makes it clear you’re not hiding or shirking. You are practicing integrity.

8) “There’s nothing else I can say about this. We need to move on.”

There will be times you face a persistent person who doesn’t hear the more tactful no and continues to press for information. After reinforcing your commitment to protect sensitive information, you may need to be assertive and close the conversation.

Your Turn

With each of these strategies, remain professional, courteous, and firm. The goal is to clarify that while you cannot discuss the confidential information, you are still approachable and want to engage in other productive conversations. This approach builds trust and respect because your team and colleagues know they can count on you to honor your commitment.

We’d love to hear from you. What’s one of your favorite ways to maintain your integrity while building trust when someone asks you about confidential information?

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Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!


  1. Art Beeler

    Work place conflict often leads to personal amicus with people not talking with each other.A leader must be able to recognize and attempt to have the parties dialogue..

    • Karin Hurt

      Art, Thank you! So agree. Equipping managers to help their teams move from conflict to collaboration is an important part of building high-performing teams.

    • David Dye

      Very true – thanks Art!


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Karin Hurt and David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results. As CEO and President of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. Karin and David are the award-winning authors of five books including, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive and elected official. Karin and David are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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