A conversation is a dance that requires partners to be in sync—it’s a mutual push-and-pull that unfolds over time. Just as the way we ask questions can facilitate trust and the sharing of information—so, too, can the way we answer them.
Answering questions requires making a choice about where to fall on a continuum between privacy and transparency. Should we answer the question? If we answer, how forthcoming should we be? What should we do when asked a question that, if answered truthfully, might reveal a less-than-glamorous fact or put us in a disadvantaged strategic position? Each end of the spectrum—fully opaque and fully transparent—has benefits and pitfalls. Keeping information private can make us feel free to experiment and learn. In negotiations, withholding sensitive information (such as the fact that your alternatives are weak) can help you secure better outcomes. At the same time, transparency is an essential part of forging meaningful connections. Even in a negotiation context, transparency can lead to value-creating deals; by sharing information, participants can identify elements that are relatively unimportant to one party but important to the other—the foundation of a win-win outcome.
And keeping secrets has costs. Research by Julie Lane and Daniel Wegner, of the University of Virginia, suggests that concealing secrets during social interactions leads to the intrusive recurrence of secret thoughts, while research by Columbia’s Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun, and Malia Mason shows that keeping secrets—even outside of social interactions—depletes us cognitively, interferes with our ability to concentrate and remember things, and even harms long-term health and well-being. In an organizational context, people too often err on the side of privacy—and underappreciate the benefits of transparency. How often do we realize that we could have truly bonded with a colleague only after he or she has moved on to a new company? Why are better deals often uncovered after the ink has dried, the tension has broken, and negotiators begin to chat freely? To maximize the benefits of answering questions—and minimize the risks—it’s important to decide before a conversation begins what information you want to share and what you want to keep private.