There are many words that we casually exchange without ever realizing their power or their danger. We use words as lofty as “respect,” “support,” or “love” – and as derogatory as “lazy,” “selfish,” or “insensitive.” These kinds of words have one thing in common: They all have vague, fuzzy meanings. Each of us defines them differently.

The meanings of such fuzzy words are based upon our unique personal histories and the specific experiences we had growing up. Thus, the same word usually means something quite different to one partner than it does to the other. Yet, as differently as we might define these words, we exchange them as if they were precise tools of communication.

Fuzzy words often create big problems for us because we are likely to use them in judgments, complaints, and criticism. What makes this especially dangerous is that both speaker and listener believe they understand what is being communicated. Take the criticism, “You’re selfish.” Hearing this, you’d likely react defensively. You wouldn’t stop to realize that you didn’t really know what the other person meant by “selfish.”

The card DEFINITIONS warns you to beware of falling into the trap set by negative fuzzy words. Since we are so used to exchanging these words, this trap is hard to see. You must stay very alert. Whenever you hear a label like “selfish” – even if you are the speaker – pause for a moment. Remind yourself that constructive conversation might be preferable.

You can move from vague, fuzzy criticism to constructive communication by getting specific. It’s that simple. If someone calls you “selfish,” find out what they mean by that word in terms of specific behaviors. To do this, ask them, “What did I specifically say or do that made me appear selfish to you?” You need to break the fuzzy word down into concrete terms. If you are being labeled, don’t take it personally. Don’t just react. Instead, ask your partner to be more specific. And if you are labeling your partner, you need to stop and be specific.

By being specific, you can clarify an issue instead of setting up a situation where partners become defensive. The specifics give you better knowledge about what one partner is reacting to in the behavior of the other. This can help you iron out possible misunderstandings. It can also let you know how you might act differently in the future – if your heart is open and you are inclined to change your behavior.

So much for negative fuzzy words. Surprisingly, the act of making fuzzy words more specific applies to positive words, too. It can empower you to create more joy and fulfillment in your relationship! Explore the specific meanings of positive words – like “love” or “respect.” You can learn much more about what “respect” means to your partner, in terms of the specific actions that make them feel respected. To do this, ask, “What could I specifically say or do that would let you know I respect you?” Their answer will reveal to you specific ways to show them your respect – ways they’ll be touched by, ways that will lead to mutual joy.

So, whether you’re responding to negative comments or exploring new paths to positive fulfillment, this card reminds you to be aware of fuzzy words. Ask for all the specifics!