How To Respond To A Confession

What do you do when you get a confession of guilt?

Imagine your mate telling  you he cheated on his girlfriend.

What if your best friend suddenly told you she’s pregnant and she doesn’t know who the father is?

What if your daughter admitted she stole her friend’s  favorite pencil?

What would you do?

From time to time, you might find someone who approached you with a confession of guilt. Okay, although I just made it sound like it’s something that occur regularly, thankfully, it isn’t.

And usually, when it does happen, you would be unsure of how to respond appropriately. On one hand, you might think that the best course of action is to encourage them to come clean. That may of course, depend on the severity of what’s been done. Such confessions may range from something light like “I just lied to my parents”, or “I just played a terrible prank on my coworker”, to something heavier like “I took something that wasn’t mine.” or “I cheated on my spouse.”

The problem is, most of us are unable to do so, as that makes us look bad. If the situation is turned around, would you like to receive such suggestion? Would you like your best friend to simply tell you “what you need to hear” in such situations?

People came to you because they needed someone they can trust. Someone who listens, emphatically, Someone who won’t judge them. Someone who understands … This will be even truer if you hold a leadership position. If you have a level of influence with  them, then all the more reason they will come to you needing your advice.

What I’m writing here is by no means a one-size fits all how-to and you must exercise wisdom using it, however, it can be helpful when you are unsure of what to say. I have listed them in a A-G format to make it easy to remember:

  1. Ask questions

To be able to see things from their perspective, you need to ask several open-ended questions. Of course, it will be tremendously helpful if you have known the person for some time to be able to gauge their personality types as well as their own tendencies in decision-making, but never assume anything until you have asked the question and got the answer.

I should note that you need to have established a level of trust with them. Asking them the additional question that they are truthful with you should go a long way. Assure them that the conversation will only stay between the two of you. Reassure them that as with mathematical problems, unless you account for all variables, you can’t solve the problem effectively.

  1. Be grateful

It takes a lot of courage to confess in something you have done wrong. It takes even more courage to do so when you know that you could have kept it secret without anyone knowing but to confess it anyway. Unless you have a great trust and confidence in someone, you are unlikely to let the elephant out of the room. I always make it a point to express gratitude for their honesty and their courage.

  1. Consolidate all the information

For a person in distress, it may be difficult to see their situations from a bird’s-eye view. It may be helpful to jot down all the available information on paper and draw a timeline of what have happened and what may have caused it to happen. It is important to remember that there is always more than one cause to an effect. It is usually a series or chain of incorrect decision-making that lead to a difficult situation, so try to set a good amount of time to go through the problem.

  1. Decide carefully

Allow me to reiterate that you need to stay calm and help them see things from a bigger picture. A distressed person will almost always see things from narrow mindset.

Life is about a series of decisions and no matter how seemingly insignificant a decision is, your future may very well hinge upon that one decision. For a situation where it is possible to slide the mistake under the carpet and pretend nothing happened, what are the possible consequences? Outline all the possible outcomes with each decision they may make.

Look at it from as many perspectives as possible.
– Mentally, are they able to live with the lingering guilt that will stay for the rest of their life?
– Spiritually, are they willing to give up the peace of mind that comes with being guilt-free and condemnation free?
– Psychologically: are they ready to constantly be on the run in their mind?

  1. Encourage.

The worst thing you could do when one comes to you for advice in such a situation is to judge them and to put them down. You need to know that they are already feeling guilty and bad about themselves and by judging and putting them down, you are unlikely to help them, in fact you are probably making it worse.

I cannot recommend strongly enough that you help them see them from a stronger point of view, or better point of view about themselves. It is after they see themselves in better light that they are empowered to make better decisions.

. One bad act as a result of multiple incorrect decisions does not make us a bad person.

  1. Provide Freedom.

If there is one thing I have learned from all the years I have done counselling and coaching, the most important thing to remember is that you cannot decide on someone else’s behalf. A good leader will tell you that a leader cannot and should not, force their opinion on someone. You are merely facilitator, someone who offer guidance and advice. Give them time to think about it and to make their own decision.

  1. Optional: Pray (Go to God) with them

We will eventually have to send them off to think and make their decision. I am a person of faith, and a simple prayer to bless them will help them tremendously in making the crucial decision.

It might be very tempting, if say, you have been in similar situation as the guilty party. and you can easily brush their concern off, tell them to do what you did and voilà, everything’s solved, right?

Again, as tempting as it may seem, there’s just no way you can apply your experience to their situation, because although your experience is true for you, it is unlikely to be true at all for the person. Experience is not the truth, it is merely a check point for us to stop, review, and reflect. Just like you can’t use your prescription lenses on another person’s eyes, you cannot project your experience onto someone else’s situation. Continuing on the prescription lenses allegory, you need to see things from their eye level to be able to prescribe a targeted solution.

Have you ever had someone admitting a mistake or wrong doing to you? How severe is their wrongdoing and how did you respond?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great article, Suwandy! If people would apply your advice, our world would be a better one. To answer your question… yes, I was in the situation when someone confessed his wrong doing. Not exactly to me, but towards my father who also died because of that doing. He had nightmares and I had to calm him down. I must admit that before that moment, I felt something similar to hate for that person. But… trying to make him understand that I don’t hate him… the hate disappeared suddenly. Moreover, he trusted me so much that he asked me to give him lots of advice in different domains. I was around 30 years then and he was about 75. We didn’t remain friends after this, but I felt great! And probably he felt same.

    • Dear @m_c_simon:disqus thank you for the encouragement. What you went through with that experience is probably a lot similar to what the late Stephen Covey taught, about “Seek First to Understand, then to be understood!” Thanks for coming by and reading.