How to be diplomatic
The art of tactful communication offers many benefits
By Angela Civitella
Respond intelligently, even to unintelligent treatment.
– Lao-Tzu, Chinese philosopher
What is tact?
Tact is the ability to tell the truth in a way that considers other people’s feelings and reactions. It allows you to give difficult feedback, communicate sensitive information, and say the right thing to preserve a relationship.
Tact encompasses many things, including emotional intelligence, respect, discretion, self-awareness, thoughtfulness, compassion, subtlety, honesty, diplomacy, and courtesy.
Why is tact important?
The ability to communicate with sensitivity offers many benefits.
First, tact is important when you have to deliver bad news or provide critical feedback, whether in a personal or professional situation.
Next, communicating tactfully strengthens your reputation and builds your credibility. It allows you to preserve existing relationships and build new ones. A tactful approach shows character, maturity, professionalism and integrity.
‘Tact encompasses many things, including emotional intelligence, respect, discretion, self-awareness, thoughtfulness, compassion, subtlety, honesty, diplomacy, and courtesy.’
Tact also demonstrates good manners. If you can communicate with grace and consideration, you’ll stand out from the crowd and you’ll get noticed for the right reasons. This can lead to career opportunities.
Finally, tact can help you to avoid conflict, find common ground, and allow others to save face. It can, therefore, be an important asset in negotiations and in conflict resolution.
Tact is strongly influenced by culture. What might be seen as open, fair feedback in some cultures might be seen as profoundly rude in others; while a message from a manager from a tactful culture may be seen as weak – or missed entirely – by a team member from a more forthright one.
Make sure that you are culturally alert when providing feedback to people from a different background. And tweak the examples below to suit your own culture.
It’s great to be tactful, however, you also need to get your message across and ensure that your own rights are respected. Make sure that you handle issues assertively not submissively when you are being tactful.
Use the strategies below to communicate with tact:
1. Create the right environment and think before you speak
How many times have you spoken too quickly and then regretted it?
First, practice active listening when others speak. Then, use empathy to connect with people, and to see things from their perspective. Last, work to build trust, so that people know that your intentions are honest and compassionate.
‘Make sure that you are culturally alert when providing feedback to people from a different background.’
2. Determine the appropriate time
Your colleague has just found out that she’ll be laid off at the end of the year, while your boss has just told you that you’re being promoted. Is now the best time to talk about your good news? Definitely not!
Tact means saying the right thing at the right time. Consider your situation before you speak, and be discreet. Make sure that you stay conscious of who you’re with – and where you are – before you speak.
3. Choose your words carefully
Your choice of words can influence how others perceive your message. Avoid starting sentences with the word “you”. For example, saying, “You need to do better next time”, will make the other person feel defensive. Instead, consider using softer, more indirect language, like, “Next time, I think your presentation would be stronger if you spent more time on research.”
It’s especially important to use “I” statements during conflict, or when you give constructive criticism. When you do this, you take ownership of your feelings instead of placing blame. For example, say, “I see it differently”, or, “I had to go over that section several times before I understood your message.”
You could also use a “cushion”, or connecting statement when you disagree with someone. For example, you can cushion the message, “You’re wrong – our team did well last quarter”, with, “I appreciate your opinion, but our team did well last quarter.”
Also, when you’re in a tense conversation, be concise. It’s tempting to keep talking when you feel uncomfortable, which increases the chance that you’ll say too much or say something that you’ll regret. Be honest and assertive and only say what you need to say.
‘It’s great to be tactful, however, you also need to get your message across and ensure that your own rights are respected.’
4. Watch your body language
Your boss just told you that your sales figures are “fine”. But, as she speaks, she avoids your gaze and folds her arms across her chest. Although her words are neutral, her body language makes you question her message.
When you’re tactful, your body language matches your message, and you appear open when you’re communicating, even if you’re giving bad news. For instance, make eye contact, don’t cross your arms or legs, don’t point, and practice good posture. Open body language and a courteous vocal tone communicate your truthfulness and willingness to work together.
5. Never react emotionally
It’s hard to communicate tactfully when you feel angry or upset. Give yourself time to calm down before you respond.
Learn how to control your emotions at work. To calm down from a stressful situation, take a break from it and go for a walk, or use deep breathing techniques to regain your composure.
It’s also important to understand people, words, issues, or situations that can cause you to communicate without tact. Think back to the last time you lost your temper or said something you later regretted. Why did you react this way? What caused you to lose control? When you understand your triggers, you’ll be better able to control your emotions or walk away in the future.
‘When you’re tactful, your body language matches your message, and you appear open when you’re communicating, even if you’re giving bad news.’
Letting team members go
It’s never easy to let people go. These situations are often emotional and tense, which is why tact is important.
Start by explaining clearly what is happening. This is a difficult and unpleasant message to communicate, but you owe it to your team member to be honest. If you allow emotion to dictate how you deliver your message, you risk “sugar coating” facts and not getting your point across.
Next, explain why you’ve made your decision and offer emotional support. It’s important to be honest in this situation, but you can also be kind and supportive.
It can be difficult to give feedback especially when it’s negative. The key to providing effective feedback is to give it frequently and to do it tactfully.
A good approach can be to “sandwich” constructive feedback between positive comments. When you start off with something positive, this helps the person to relax, and it reminds them that they’re doing a good job. And, when you end with a positive, people don’t walk away feeling upset.
Avoid sandwiching the constructive feedback between too many positives, however, or people may take away the wrong message. Also, avoid using this approach too often, as people may come to mistrust positive feedback from you.
‘It’s hard to communicate tactfully when you feel angry or upset. Give yourself time to calm down before you respond.’
Declining an invitation
If you decline an invitation with an outright “no”, some people may view this as crass or insensitive.
Start with a positive comment: “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m sure it will be a wonderful event”. Next, tactfully decline: “I’m sorry that I can’t attend.” Last, end on a positive note: “Hopefully, my schedule will be less hectic next time and we can get together then.”
Your colleague is known as the office gossip, and he’s spreading rumours about another colleague while you’re in the room. You can tactfully deflect and neutralize the gossip in several ways.
For instance, say something positive: “Jill might struggle with her sales figures, but she’s a hard worker.” Or, ask them to stop: “I don’t want to talk about this, especially since we don’t know the facts. Let’s discuss the upcoming merger instead.” You can also say, “I don’t want to talk about people behind their backs,” or, “Let’s talk about this when Jill is here so that she can address these issues.”
‘Tact is particularly useful in conflict resolution because it can relieve tension, remove blame, and allow both sides to save face.’
Tact is particularly useful in conflict resolution because it can relieve tension, remove blame, and allow both sides to save face.
For example, imagine that you and your colleague have argued over who gets to manage the next team project. Your colleague has run the last two projects, and she wants to lead this one because it fits with her expertise.
Before you insist that you take over this project, think about her position. She ran the previous projects with finesse and professionalism. Also, this project is a perfect fit for her – you might struggle with it because you don’t have her experience.
A tactful response to this conflict would be, “You’re right. You should run this project because it matches your skills. I need some practice in a team leadership role, too, so how do you feel about me shadowing you, and then leading the next project?”
Your boss has asked you to give a presentation to a group of industry professionals. Everyone is engaged by it except for one attendee who seems lost. She’s new to her role, and you guess that she doesn’t feel confident asking questions because she doesn’t want to lose face.
To be more tactful during presentations don’t use jargon or long words that may confuse your audience. Explain complex ideas clearly, so that people don’t have to ask for clarification. When appropriate, be self-deprecating to make others feel at ease; and leave plenty of time for questions, so that everyone leaves feeling informed.
‘To be more tactful during presentations don’t use jargon or long words that may confuse your audience. Explain complex ideas clearly, so that people don’t have to ask for clarification.’
Tact is the ability to deliver a difficult message in a way that considers other people’s feelings and preserves relationships. It encompasses many things, such as emotional intelligence, discretion, compassion, honesty, and courtesy.
To develop tact, use the following strategies:
- Create the right environment and think before you speak.
- Determine the appropriate time.
- Choose your words carefully.
- Watch your body language.
- Never react emotionally.
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Angela Civitella, a certified management business coach with more than 20 years of proven ability as a negotiator, strategist, and problem-solver creates sound and solid synergies with those in quest of improving their leadership and team building skills. You can reach Angela at 514 254-2400 • linkedin.com/in/angelacivitella/ • intinde.com • @intinde