I used to think that welcoming the soul into group conversations required a promise of confidentiality. The late Rachael Kessler, pioneer in the field of social and emotional learning and author of The Soul of Education, changed my mind.
For sure, a spirit of confidentiality helps. When we share unfiltered truth, we’re letting masks drop away. It’s no surprise, then, that the soul—that raw, vital, authentic innermost part of ourselves—shies away from direct confrontation or full exposure. Trusting that our listeners will protect and defend our vulnerability—rather than ridiculing or exposing it further—gives us safer ground to stand on. We can speak more honestly. We can share what’s difficult, halting, or tender. And in so doing, we can reach what’s most creative, courageous, and connective. Taking a firm, unequivocal stand against sloppy boundaries of communication means a group can go deeper much faster, promoting real and often astonishing change. The soul feels welcome. We transform.
Such a commitment also raises questions, however. For one, what happens if someone speaks about something illegal or dangerous? Most soul-welcoming groups or experiences neither claim nor intend to serve as group therapy but that doesn’t necessarily mean they avoid therapeutic territory. Maybe in the reassurance of the circle, a participant confuses that boundary and shares a struggle with suicide or a torment about having committed a crime. Maybe a student brings up instances of abuse at home. For teachers in a high school setting, the guidelines are clear: we’re obligated to report any threat of violence, to others or to oneself. A circle of adults won’t have such clear direction and will have to wade through much murkier waters.
Further, a promise of confidentiality can limit one’s ability to process emotionally charged information. That’s especially true if we’ve committed to double confidentiality where, not only will we not share with anyone outside our group, we won’t bring up the topic with anyone inside our group either. Such an expectation might work fine in a group that has just met and won’t likely see each other again. But what happens in an ongoing group when someone drops an emotional bombshell or opens a can of worms? What happens if someone’s honesty insults or stirs another’s feelings? Where can participants turn to work through what they’ve heard? Words shared in such circles do not just disappear. They can’t be unsaid or unheard. If I’m your co-worker and you tell our group how little you feel motivated on the job, for example, I may have a tough time trusting in your effort going forward. How can we not acknowledge that reality? Again, such sticky situations may happen only rarely, but they will happen. Saying we’ll keep full confidentiality can put us in a tough spot.
In her writings and workshops with the Passageworks Institute of Boulder, CO, Rachael Kessler argued that, in fact, we should not promise confidentiality, even when we want to encourage discussions about things that really matter. Humans make mistakes, she acknowledged. Even when adults and young people alike intend to provide confidentiality, we sometimes let things slip. When we’ve been assured of full confidentiality, such missteps breed an even deeper mistrust and sense of betrayal that can permanently damage a group. Like Charlie Brown falling down after Lucy pulls the football away despite having promised she’d leave it on the ground, the soul gets left alone wondering when or if it could ever really be safe.
In Kessler’s mind, we do better instead to commit to honoring privacy. Confidentiality represents a binary commitment: either I don’t talk about what I’ve heard in the group or I do. I’m not really forced to pay much attention to my process around doing either. I keep the secret or I fail to. Honoring privacy, on the other hand, asks for a more active, more resilient, more participatory stance. Rather than relying on a brittle or inflexible yes/no wall, we form a boundary of expectation through communication and interchange. We find more fluidity. What privacy would I want as a speaker? What would it look like, sound like, and feel like? How can we respectfully address any concerns that come up? With such questions, a group does usually register its intention to keep what’s said in the group in the group—but also defines and develops tools to carefully monitor any leaning away from that intention.
Pretty quickly, honoring privacy becomes a practice of awareness and observation, both of self and of other. If I’m the one sharing something private, I can take a moment to ask why I’m offering the information or story. Am I trying to advance the topic at hand or to generate sympathy? Am I looking to get attention or to advance understanding? Should this get relayed unintentionally outside the circle, will I survive? If the answer to this last question is yes, for example, I can put myself forward. If not, I should refrain from sharing.
Likewise, when I’m tempted to speak outside the circle, I can run through a healthy inquiry checklist first. What makes me want to share this story or information? Am I just enjoying the thrill of being a gossip insider? Or do I have legitimate concerns for my own self-care or for the well-being of others? Whom does my speaking serve? Who could it harm? Honoring privacy means that I can share my struggle with the larger group rather than denying it. With our combined dedication, we can work together to navigate any thorny terrain. Here, our discussion and direction would serve to deepen and confirm the group’s original commitment, clarifying what might have been entered blithely or without sophistication. The commitment to privacy, then, becomes an active practice, always growing, always refining.
It might be true that the questions raised here apply more when working with young people than they do when working with full-grown adults. For sure, kids need skills that many adults have—containing and processing loaded information, asking questions of themselves and their own motivations, asking for help when they need it, and the like. At the same time, many adults also lack those very same skills.
As a teacher or as a participant, I don’t want to promise something I know the group will have difficulty delivering. I’d rather commit to an ongoing process of mutual definition, one that acknowledges complexity and subtlety. Even if we don’t set a black-and-white bar with the word “confidentiality,” we can stay fierce in tending the boundaries of appropriate privacy. Hopefully that’s enough to encourage each participant to speak openly and honestly. Hopefully, that’s enough to welcome the soul.
 In my classes, I do actually have students generate their own commitments rather than having me just hand expectations down. Starting that way gets more buy-in and finds language unique to that particular constellation of kids. I can steer the conversation—toward honoring privacy, for example—but the final words remain theirs in the end.
 I’m eternally thankful for Kessler’s clarity and provocation here. I trust that my take on the issue will continue to evolve, but she has given me a firmer, more skillful foundation on which to stand.