Knowing when to share a piece of information, and when not to share it, is a life-long learning process. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes in this regard.
At the same time, to be someone others can count on, you have to know when to keep a confidential conversation to yourself. If you can't do this, you won't be considered trustworthy, and this can be costly when you think of the friendships and opportunities you may be losing.
You know you're in a confidential conversation when someone says, "This is just between us," "Please don't say anything, but . . ." or, "I can trust you not to tell anyone about this, can't I?"
However, a request for confidentiality is not always verbalized, so it is important to train yourself for mindfulness. If the person with whom you are speaking changes the tone of or lowers his voice, you are likely to hear something that shouldn't be repeated.
If you're comfortable doing so, ask the person directly if what she is sharing is private. Or you might just say, "I'll keep this confidential."
In fact, when it comes to sharing information, establishing some ground rules for yourself may be helpful:
What do you do if a friend or co-worker doesn't respect a confidential conversation? You can always ask the person if he has permission to share what he's telling you. And if what he's sharing is not professional or friendly, you can stop him and mention that you prefer not to participate.
You might also call for a higher standard of conversation: "John, I know you are a person who doesn't like office gossip, so let's raise the bar here."
When you are the brunt of the conversation, however, it is very difficult not to take it personally. But try to remain cool, calm, and collected.
After much thought on what you will say, go to the source of the gossip and discuss the situation. Try and understand, without direct accusation, what the underlying concern is. It may be that what you told her was misunderstood and then not handled appropriately.
Consider your own behavior and words. Did you share a confidential conversation with the wrong person? Someone you shouldn't have trusted? Or did you share information that wasn't yours to share?
If you were seeking relief by relying on a trusted friend, you probably feel very betrayed if that person did not keep your confidence. You may need to take a stand with that person and be clear that what is being said (or done) is not appropriate. Unfortunately, you may also have to accept that it can take time for publicized information to die down.
Remember, communication is the goal of any conversation. Having a reason, a purpose, for talking with someone else helps you keep your words aligned with that purpose. And, hopefully, that purpose is never to spread confidential information.