How To Have Difficult Conversations, Part I: Is the Person Safe?

This is the first of a three-part series about how to navigate difficult conversations. Part I will consist of how to identify whether someone is safe before determining if or how to have a difficult conversation with them. Part II will detail how to engage in a complex talk with someone who is unsafe. Part III will illustrate how to have an effective hard talk with someone you trust enough to be vulnerable with. 

Is the person safe?

Most people have both positive and negative qualities. So it’s important to remember that people who are generally unsafe are not all bad. This post is not intended to condemn anyone. In fact, LDS theology teaches that in general everyone will have the opportunity to continue to grow after this life. However, it may be that certain traumas or adverse life experiences, especially if they occur during childhood, may make it difficult or maybe even impossible for a person to change or grow past a certain point in this life. Of course most people who are willing to seek help in working through their early life trauma can often experience healing and can transform their life.

But for those who do not or cannot make that choice, we can hold compassion and love in our hearts even when they exhibit unsafe qualities. At the same time, we do not have to accept abuse or continue relationships with them if they cannot or will not stop harming us or those we love.

The second commandment we are given in the Bible is to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). But implicit in this commandment is the injunction to love oneself first. It’s difficult to love others if we do not know how to show love and compassion for ourselves. In fact, I think the ability to love others may grow out of our experience of learning how to prioritize and care appropriately and lovingly for ourselves.

The following guidelines are an attempt to help you navigate the often murky waters involved in discerning whether someone is safe enough to enter into a difficult conversation with. I hope they can be a kind of lighthouse along the relationship shore to guide you through the sometimes disorienting dynamics of determining whether someone is safe enough to be vulnerable with, or whether it is best to disengage and protect yourself.

What determines whether someone is safe or unsafe?

Much of what follows draws on the wisdom contained in the book Safe People by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, as well as an online article on Psychology Today about their work on this topic.

The most important aspect of determining whether someone is safe or not is recognizing that a person may appear to be a genuinely kind person but may ultimately be unsafe because of issues they are struggling with. So how do you know if someone is safe?

Unsafe people are dishonest. They consistently lie, tell half-truths, and may twist the truth in an attempt to deceive others into believing something that is simply not true. A safe person is honest. Their words and actions match. (Note: research has demonstrated that everyone lies from time to time. The difference here is a pervasive and overall pattern of behavior that has the effect of misrepresenting reality for the dishonest person’s gain.)

Unsafe people demand trust. Trust develops over time as a result of someone consistently exhibiting caring behavior. Safe people allow trust to be built in this way. Unsafe people often demand that you trust them immediately and may act hurt or defensive if you don’t trust them quickly.

Unsafe people don’t grow. Everyone makes mistakes or has parts of themselves that need improvement. Safe people admit their mistakes, are open to feedback about how their behavior impacts others, and they work to improve themselves over time. They apologize and take steps to change their hurtful behavior. Unsafe people never, or only rarely, admit their mistakes and are often critical of others and defensive when faced with their mistakes. They may initially apologize, express regret, and/or make promises to do better, but ultimately they do not change their hurtful behavior.

Unsafe people avoid facing their issues: instead they may project their problems into you—blaming you for their problematic behavior. It’s much easier to point your finger at someone else than to humbly consider how you may have harmed someone. Safe people take steps to overcome their issues, demonstrate empathy when someone is hurting, and can forgive when appropriate. Unsafe people often lack compassion for others’ pain and hold onto grudges instead of working to forgive others.

Unsafe people use flattery instead of talking with you. Someone who only tells you positive things about yourself is more interested in your liking them than being honest with you. A safe person actively listens to you and engages in a mutual dialogue with you about your concerns. An unsafe person is consistently resistant to hearing your complaints, is often defensive, and may blame you repeatedly for their hurtful behavior.

Unsafe people gaslight, blame, and shame those they harm. Gaslighting is a form of crazy-making. It is any behavior that causes a person to question their sanity. Unsafe people “blame the victim:” they tell you it’s your fault that they hurt you. Unsafe people will often stop at nothing to engage in behavior that will cast those they harm in the poorest light possible. By contrast, safe people take responsibility when they harm you; they apologize and take steps to change their behavior. They “greenlight” who you are by demonstrating profound compassion for where you are in your life journey. They accept you as you are while supporting your individual development and desires to grow.

Stay tuned next month for Part II in this series, “How to Have Difficult Conversations.”

Wendy is a psychoanalyst, licensed clinical social worker, and marriage and family therapist in private practice.


  1. Thank you for this, the timing couldn’t be better as navigate several relationships where I have had to set up boundaries and move forward.

    • I”m so glad you found it to be validating, ST. Wishing you the best as you move forward. This is hard stuff, but in my experience putting up healthy boundaries when there are unsafe dynamics in relationships can be life changing. Way to go!

  2. This is fabulous, Wendy. I love the disclaimer you make about unsafe people not being inherently bad. I think that so often we’re resistant to realize unsafe behaviors/patterns about people because we don’t want to see them as “bad.” We assume that because they are sometimes/often kind or do good things that they can’t be unsafe, but that kind of black/white really does us a disservice. Some of my favorite people (in certain situations) are also pretty unsafe. We need to recognize this so that we can make/keep boundaries that are for the good of everyone involved!

    • Thanks, Liz! I like how you describe the nuances involved in navigating relationships with people who are unsafe in certain situations. This is likely the case with most people who exhibit the qualities described above. Really helpful comment!

  3. This is great. Thank you for sharing! One thing that stood out to me is the demand for trust. I hear too often at church that we should trust leaders simply because they are our leaders or simply because they’re priesthood holders or that we should trust their counsel because they must have been called of God. It seems easy then to extend using the priesthood to demand trust in situations such as abusive/suppressive homes.

  4. I was also intrigued by the reminder that an unsafe person is not necessarily a bad person. I think it is sometimes difficult to set appropriate boundaries because we feel like we are condemning someone as a person, but that is not necessarily the case.

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