How to Be Tactful
Responding With Diplomacy and Grace
Respond intelligently, even to unintelligent treatment. – Lao-Tzu, Chinese philosopher
One of your brightest team members, Jon, has just finished giving a presentation. He seems pleased with his performance, but it's obvious that he wasn't properly prepared. His presentation was poorly researched and badly organized, and you're disappointed by his lack of effort.
Before everyone has left the conference room, Jon asks for your feedback. You tell him that his presentation was sloppy and disorganized, and that you had expected better from him.
Unsurprisingly, Jon is visibly upset, and you immediately regret your comments. You wanted to be honest, but you didn't want to hurt his feelings, especially in front of other people. A month later, Jon hands in his resignation.
We all have to communicate painful or sensitive information at some point in our careers. And, while it's important to tell the truth, we need to think about how we do it. Tact allows us to be honest, while respecting a person's feelings.
When we communicate tactfully, we can preserve relationships, build credibility, and demonstrate thoughtfulness. In this article, we examine what tact is, and look at how you can develop this important quality.
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.
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 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.
We've outlined a couple of examples of tact below:
- Your boss asks you to take on some of their workload, so that they can leave early on Friday. However, your schedule is full and you're not sure you'll get everything done on time.
A tactful response might be, "Thank you for trusting me with some of your responsibilities. I'm sorry that I can't help you this time because of my workload. Is there anything I could help you with next week, when I have more time?"
- One of your team members is regularly late for work and it affects their performance. After another missed deadline, you're tempted to call them out at the staff meeting. Although this might make you feel better in the short term, it's insensitive – a more tactful approach would be to speak with them privately about their tardiness.
You could even start with a really gentle approach. For example, "I've noticed you've had trouble getting to work on time. What can I do to help?"
As you can see, tact reflects emotional sensitivity and increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.
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 and emotional intelligence 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.
2. Determine the Appropriate Time
Your colleague has just found out that they'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.
4. Watch Your Body Language
Your boss just told you that your sales figures are "fine." But, as they speak, they avoid your gaze and fold their arms across their chest. Although your manager's words are neutral, their body language makes you question their 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.
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.
Below are some common situations where tact can make the difference between a positive and negative experience.
1. 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.
2. Giving Feedback
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.
3. 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."
Our article "'Yes' to the Person, 'No' to the Task" has more strategies that you can use to decline a request tactfully, yet maintain a positive relationship.
4. Deflecting Gossip
Your colleague is known as the office gossip, and they're spreading rumors about another colleague when 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."
Our article "Rumors in the Workplace" has more tips for tactfully managing and preventing gossip at work.
5. Handling Disagreements
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 they want to lead this one because it fits with their expertise.
Before you insist that you take over this project, think about your colleague's position. They ran the previous projects with finesse and professionalism. Also, this project is a perfect fit for them – you might struggle with it because you don't have their 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?"
6. Giving Presentations
Your boss has asked you to give a presentation to a group of industry professionals. Everyone is engaged by it except one attendee, who seems lost. They're new to their role, and you guess that they don't feel confident asking questions because they don'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.
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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