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The Difference between Dangerous and Unsafe

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Whether we are talking about job sites, relationships, or simply walking down the street, we routinely confront the question of safety.  The fact is that we live in a dangerous world, and safety is a real question for all of us.

I have recently struck upon a difference between dangerous and unsafe.  The world is a dangerous place, but it is not always unsafe.  In terms of relationships with other human beings, we are all dangerous to each other: we all have the potential to cause hurt, whether deliberately, by mistake, by ignorance, or by accident.  

What makes a person safe or unsafe is how they handle their dangerousness.  It’s what they do when they have caused hurt that makes the difference.

Driving a car is a dangerous thing in its very nature.  How I handle that responsibility is what makes the difference between being a safe driver and an unsafe (reckless) driver.   The reckless driver des not acknowledge the inherent dangerousness of driving a 2 ton vehicle at 40 miles an hour among dozens of other 2 ton vehicles.  A reckless driver does not consider what the other vehicles might be doing but demands his or her own way, and that everyone else must make way for their vehicle.  People who are reckless in relationship behave similarly, and they act in relationally unsafe ways.

I can get into a wreck whether I am a safe driver or not, but it is more likely and typically more severe when I am reckless.

Let’s talk about relationships.  My responsibility when I speak is ALWAYS to speak the truth and to be respectful. That responsibility never changes and is never removed.   If I speak to you harshly for any reason at all, I owe you an apology, period.  Having said this, I have to acknowledge that there are a lot of reasons I might speak to you harshly.  I might be having a bad day.  I might be in a hurry, or in pain.  You may have done something to offend me.  You might have made a mistake that affected me somehow.  You might have been a jerk toward me and I responded in kind.  In this, I am dangerous: I have a lot of potential to hurt you.  

What makes me safe or unsafe is how I handle that responsibility both before and after I cause hurt.  

I am a safe user of words when I consider the words and tones I am willing to use, when I resist the tendency to speak in anger or harshness.  I can still get into a “wreck” so to speak:  I am still capable of speaking in hurtful ways.  When I am safe, I will do so less often and with less intensity, and I will stop myself sooner.

When I do cross that line, what happens next is important.  If I blame you or say you deserved it, I am creating an unsafe environment.  If I refuse to acknowledge the hurt, I am creating unsafety.  If I tell you you’re too sensitive or that you’re making a big deal out of nothing, I am creating unsafety.   If I say “I’m sorry, but…” I’m actually saying, “This is why I ‘m not sorry,” and I am creating unsafety.

What makes me relationally safe is when I own my responsibility and the fact that I broke my responsibility, and I genuinely apologize for crossing a line.  When I am open and accepting of the fact that I am human and fallible, I am more willing to be called out on misbehavior and better able to resist the defensiveness that naturally arises.  If I can accept my own humanity, I am likely more able to accept your humanity and we can have a human conversation. 

We are always dangerous to each other, but it is never a foregone conclusion that because we are dangerous, we are unsafe.  As we pay attention to the dangerousness of living and interacting with other human beings, take up our responsibility for conducting ourselves appropriately, and own our mistakes and limitations, we engage in “safe driving”.  So… buckle up, it’s dangerous out there.