I think you have no business taking others into your confidence until you really know what they're all about. How do you get that critical information? By listening, not by talking. You can always learn something when you're listening. But as soon as your lips start moving, you're disclosing, and whenever someone knows what you're thinking or doing, there's risk involved. Now, that may sound cynical or overly cautious—but I believe you need to approach life with a strategy in mind. Consider this wisdom attributed to Cardinal Richelieu, a 17th-century French statesman (who knew a thing or two about strategy): "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him." That guy was onto something. So was my dad, who said it a bit differently: "Never miss a good chance to shut up!"
Words are powerful, and so is knowledge. When you tell people what you're thinking or doing, you are making a decision to empower them with information—and you may be unintentionally giving them ammunition they can use to exploit you, compete with you or somehow get in your way. I once knew a guy who casually mentioned to a coworker—who he thought was also a friend—that he was applying for a job that was an incredible opportunity. Next thing he knew, that coworker had been offered the position instead. True story.
Do I think everyone is out to take advantage of you? Absolutely not. But I do believe that people need to earn your trust from the get-go. Don't just give it away freely until someone abuses it. You need to operate with a level of awareness about what you're disclosing every time you open your mouth and make sure you're not giving away information indiscriminately to people who aren't worthy of it.
I'm not saying you have to give up friendly chitchat or meaningful talks with people you know well. There are healthy reasons to converse, and there are unhealthy ones. It's your job to recognize the difference. Think about this: How often do you hear yourself talking just to fill silences? Do you ever discover that you're revealing something you never intended to share just because you're uncomfortable with a lull in the conversation? I want you to know that it's perfectly okay to be quiet. Maybe you've heard me say, "You can't take back stupid." Once those words come out, you can't retrieve them—so when in doubt, keep your cards close to your vest.
Personally, I'm always evaluating why people say what they say. Nobody does anything without a reason, so when I'm faced with a question about something that matters, I ask myself: "Why does that person want to know? Is he trying to manipulate me? Is he just being friendly? What's his true motivation?" Maybe it sounds paranoid, but I think it's just a smart, thoughtful way of engaging with the world. Before you talk about your feelings, plans, priorities, values—anything at all of substance—ask yourself: "Whom am I sharing this information with, and do they deserve it? Why are we having this conversation?" Engage your brain before you put your mouth in gear. And never miss a good chance to shut up!
Dr. Phillip C. McGraw's daily talk show is in its 12th season. He has written seven best-selling books; his latest is Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World.