I was innocently making a request to my significant other last week and used a word that set off quite a reaction in him.  It reminded me that we are always walking in a land mine without knowing it.  We go about our day communicating without much thought.  We tell people what to do, what we need, and how we feel.  We ask questions, make requests, and set limits.  And we do this with words.  For most of us, our word selection is based on our ongoing developing vocabulary, words and phrases we’ve grown up with, or words and phrases we’ve picked up from the people in our lives.  We rarely think much about the words we choose.  We typically use words that we’re familiar with and that will take care of our communication needs with efficiency and ease. Quite frankly, our daily use of words is relatively limited when compared with the number of words available to us in the English language.

Well, my point today is not on how we learn, select, and use language.  My point is that the language we use may be innocent enough to us, but may evoke a storm of thoughts, feelings, and reactions from those around us.  We never know what meaning a simple “word” will have for someone else; nor should we.  What’s important to remember is that each of us have trigger words—some of which we are aware of and some of which we aren’t.  In other words, I may be able to tell you I’m very sensitive to the word “needy” but may have no idea that the word “——“ will trigger a reaction.  This may be because a word heard within a certain context may trigger a reaction whereas in another context it may not.

Many an argument starts with a single word.  If you find yourself caught in the storm, stop and consider the following:


  1. Your choice of words may have caused a reaction in your significant other, but that reaction has little to do with you. Don’t take it personally. Stop and find out what it was specifically that you said that triggered the reaction.  Make the inquiry.  Don’t defend or re-attack.
  2. If you’re reacting to a specific word someone used, stop and consider that it was not meant as a personal attack.  Test your assumptions. Let the other person know which word triggered you and why.
  3. Correct any misinterpretations.  Clarify your use and meaning for your word selection–that doesn’t mean what you needed to say is unimportant.  However, sometimes it is necessary to find another word or set of words that can get the job done better.
  4. While you both may speak the same language, rarely do we really speak the same “language.”  People have different backgrounds and associations with different words.  It takes time and shared communications to learn each other’s “real” vocabulary.
  5. Don’t get stuck on semantics.  What’s really important is to find a way to communicate respectfully and effectively.  Let it go and move on.  Find common ground from which to begin and build from there.

Creating a vocabulary that works well in your relationship is worth the effort.  In the end, your personal vocabulary will grow, your trigger words will lessen, and your communication and connection with each other will flourish.

Be well,


Julie Orlov, psychotherapist, speaker, and author of The Pathway to Love: Create Intimacy and Transform Your Relationships through Self-Discovery

Create Relationships in Your Life That Work — learn more at www.julieorlov.com