How to Have Difficult Conversations, Part II: Talking to Someone Who Is Unsafe
This is the second of a three-part series about how to navigate difficult conversations. Part I discussed how to identify whether someone is safe before determining if or how to have a difficult conversation with them. Part II below details 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.
As I wrote in the last post, this series is not intended to condemn anyone. Most of us behave in ways that are unsafe at times. Someone whom you determine is unsafe is not necessarily all, or always, unsafe. There are exceptions to this rule however, and only you can know whether or not someone treats you in ways that are safe for you. The Bible implores us to love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39), yet it’s difficult to love others if we don’t know how to show love and compassion for ourselves. As I mentioned before, I think the ability to love others may grow out of our ability to prioritize and care appropriately and lovingly for ourselves.
What follows are guidelines for how to navigate difficult conversations with someone who is exhibiting unsafe qualities, such as
- being continually dishonest
- demanding trust
- disavowing accountability for their mistakes
- refusing to face their issues
- using flattery instead of talking with you
- gaslighting, blaming, or shaming you
An otherwise safe person may only behave in these ways when they are triggered or when in an intense conflict; in those moments they are being unsafe. Other people may consistently behave in these unsafe ways. No matter how often someone appears to be unsafe, it is wise to prepare yourself for them to be unsafe toward you when entering into a difficult conversation. If the conversation goes better than expected, hooray! But having some tools in your metaphorical relationship toolbox before heading into a hard talk can be helpful. However, there is no preparation that can protect you from the pain of someone treating you in unsafe ways.
There are general patterns like those mentioned above where it becomes clear over time that you are in an abusive or unsafe dynamic. If you are experiencing a pattern that looks like those referred to in the cycle of violence (tension, incident, calm/honeymoon period, REPEAT), please seek help. To assess whether you might be experiencing abuse or consistent harm in a relationship, compare the two images in the links below.
Emotional, physical, sexual, psychological, spiritual, or ecclesiastical abuse and violence can occur in any relationship. Seek support from trusted family, friends, and especially from a skilled mental health professional in the event that someone has harmed you.
When a person is unsafe, protect yourself first. Research has demonstrated that about two-thirds of all conflicts in intimate relationships like marriage are unresolvable (see Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s work), so resolving differences is not necessarily a logical goal in a hard talk—especially when conversing with an unsafe person since even two generally safe people are often unable to resolve their differences most of the time. Dr. Brene Brown talks about “leaning into difficult conversations with kindness.” With an unsafe person, kindness may not always be possible in order to protect yourself or those you love. At other times it may be possible to have firm boundaries and to be kind while utilizing boundaries in a hard conversation with someone who is behaving in unsafe ways.
In general, no matter how firm you need to be, aim to treat the other person with dignity and respect while speaking your truth. With this approach you are less likely to have regrets after a difficult conversation despite how firm you may need to be. However, when abuse or violence is involved, it is more important to protect yourself and those you love from harm than to consider how you are behaving in that moment.
And yet in circumstances when you determine that having a difficult conversation is in your best interest, how do you proceed knowing the person you will be talking to is unsafe?
Be prepared to say no to talking. Giving yourself permission to disengage with or reject an offer or demand to talk to someone you know to be unsafe can be an empowering and important choice. Remember that YOU get to choose who you interact with. No one is entitled to your time or your energy. And even if you initially agree to talking, you are allowed to change your mind. Practice ways to decline an invitation to talk when you know the conversation will not be productive for you. You can simply say, “No thanks.” Or you could say something like, “That won’t work for me,” or “I’d rather not.” If it’s not safe to be that direct, you can arrange to have plans when you anticipate an unsafe person may request to speak to you. In that case you can say, “I have somewhere I need to be.” Even if you do not have specific plans in that moment to be elsewhere, it is true that you need to be anywhere else than with an unsafe person so this is actually an honest statement.
When possible, bring a trusted adult with you. Having another person present can create some safety for you, even if the person you bring does not plan to actively participate in the conversation. Unsafe people like to try to emotionally fuse with or dominate others. A third person can act as a buffer: just by being present they can create a physical boundary if things go south. You can ask the person who accompanies you to remind you of what you wanted to talk about if you lose sight of your agenda or get bullied into talking about a topic that is harmful to you.
Rehearse what you want to say and stay focused on your agenda. Staying focused on your agenda during these types of exchanges is vital. This often takes practice. Solicit the help of someone you trust beforehand to role play or brainstorm what you want to say. Unsafe people are often masters of manipulation. They can dominate conversations by coercing you through acting like a victim or dumping their emotional baggage on you. Prior to talking, determine what your goal for the talk is. No matter how the other person tries to divert the conversation to their agenda (when their behavior is inappropriate), keep bringing the focus back to what you want to discuss by simply restating your ideas. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. You can often say the same thing many different ways without the other person being aware that you are staying in control of the conversation.
Have an exit plan or reason you need to leave to empower yourself to end the conversation when you are finished. If you are ever unsure about how to get out of an in-person conversation, simply stand up and walk away.
Beware of flattery. It can draw you in and slowly erode your boundaries. I like to imagine that I have an invisible force field or impenetrable bubble around me when I engage with unsafe people. I imagine this boundary as protecting my mind (having an inner boundary) and protecting my physical body (having an outer boundary). Unsafe people often have a lifetime of experience coercing others into believing that what they want is best for the other person too. The best way I have found to combat what can be an emotional and sometimes physical barrage of inappropriate requests, comments, or demands is to utilize what I call “The Four NOs” Saying “no” is the most effective way to institute and maintain a healthy boundary. You put up a boundary when you
- Think NO
- Feel NO
- Say NO
- Do NO
You don’t necessarily have to be direct to put up a protective boundary. It can be as easy as not responding to what the other person is saying. You can also just think “no” in your mind. Sometimes the boundary of “no” comes to us as a feeling. Listen to that “no” and let it guide you. Sometimes simply holding onto that feeling during an interaction with an unsafe person can guide us so we don’t abandon ourselves when the other person might try to draw us into their agenda. You can say “no” directly or indirectly. As mentioned above, doing “no” can look like standing up when you are finished with a face-to-face conversation, or getting off the phone or not messaging someone back when conversing with them online.
Use “I statements.” The best way to be heard is to speak solely from your perspective. We cannot know how another person feels or what they need. But you are the expert on you. Starting every sentence with “I” can safeguard you from getting caught up in a topic that may go nowhere or may put an unsafe person even more on the defensive than they normally would be. (More on this in Part III of this series.)
Mirror their aggression. If they speak in a loud voice or yell, you can raise your voice in a controlled but strong way to mirror back the power they are sending at you. If they stand up, you stand up. Make your body and voice as big and powerful as necessary, but only if you feel safe doing so. As a reminder, you can do this in a respectful but firm way. However, if someone becomes verbally or physically violent, protect yourself by immediately leaving the conversation and removing yourself from that situation.
Manage your expectations. Unsafe people are not good listeners. Say what you want to say without expectation of being heard or understood in a meaningful way. Instead, express yourself for the purpose of hearing yourself speak your truth. Focus on the positive impact on yourself and those near you for whom you are modeling self-advocacy and healthy boundaries, and try to avoid looking for a specific outcome. Taking a strong stand for yourself can increase one’s sense of self over time, but it’s unlikely to make an unsafe person change their behavior toward you.
Do things on your terms. Only agree to speak to an unsafe person if you can guarantee that you will be physically and emotionally safe. Set up parameters for the conversation like choosing a safe location (like a public place), setting limits on the time frame, choosing who is present, and by making sure you have a way to immediately leave if necessary. Never agree to speak to someone you know will harm you. Use centering practices like prayer and meditation in anticipation of these conversations, and always listen to your intuition and instincts as they are your best guide before, during, and after interactions with unsafe people.
The guidelines above do not guarantee that a difficult conversation will go well or that it will produce the outcome you desire. Nor can following them ensure that the relationship will remain intact or be one you will want to continue. There may be significant tension when you start to protect yourself in a relationship with an unsafe person. They may go to great lengths to encourage you to change back to your former way of interacting with them. They may even threaten you when nothing else works to get what they want from you. But taking an appropriate stand for yourself is central to self-care when interacting with unsafe people. We cannot please everyone, and trying to do so harms us and our relationships. I like to think of these conversations as the familiar LDS hymn implores, “Do what is right; let the consequence follow.”
Stay tuned next month for the final post in this series about how to have a difficult conversation with someone who is generally safe.
Wendy is a psychoanalyst, licensed clinical social worker, and marriage and family therapist in private practice.