The Bold Skill of Being Tactful
How often do we face situations in our career or life where we must present difficult information and do it in a way that preserves the relationship. That is why learning the skill of being tactful is so important to our personal success. Let me illustrate through a short example and then provide some important steps, strategies, and tips.
A colleague of yours, Tim, is asked to take the lead on an extensive project which you will be working on over the course of several months. Your team meets several times to get your initial ideas together and prepare a presentation for your supervisor. You feel confident that the group’s ideas are thorough and well-researched.
At the meeting, you are shocked by Tim’s presentation. You had put a significant amount of work into the project and yet your ideas appear to have been completely cut out. Instead, Tim has replaced them with his own ideas which were not agreed upon by the group.
Immediately after the presentation, your supervisor asks you to address some concerns they have, and you are not surprised as they are the same concerns you had initially presented to Tim.
You feel betrayed, angry, and frustrated, so you launch into an emotional monologue about how you have been cut out from the project, you don’t even agree with the ideas in the presentation, and lash out against Tim.
Your supervisor is appalled by the lack of communication of the group and pulls the project entirely.
While your feelings might be justified, an unprofessional and tactless response can lead to poor communication, failed outcomes, and loss of respect.
“Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.”
What is Tact?
Tact is the ability to address a difficult or sensitive subject with honesty while considering the feelings and reactions of others. It allows for productive interactions which improve relationships and avoid offense.
Why is it Important to Be Tactful?
People who have mastered the skill of being tactful are able to communicate ideas and provide feedback about topics that are sensitive. This allows for open and honest communication while cultivating mutual respect. No one wants to be lied to, and yet there are times when it is difficult to hear the truth. Tactful communication garners credibility, character, integrity, and good manners.
Benefits of Being Tactful
The outcomes of many situations can be greatly benefitted by using a tactful approach. Tact can open a situation up for more honest conversations and mutual respect.
Tact Allows for Honest Communication
You notice that someone on your team is regularly out for more than 60 minutes for his lunch break. Because your office does not use a formal time-keeping system, no one is tracking this missed time. Yet you feel confident this issue has become a regular occurrence. Instead of attacking this person, you approach him with a direct and tactful approach, letting him know that you have noticed that he is often overextending his lunch break, yet he always appears to be on time otherwise. You politely and calmly ask if there is a reason you should be aware of. This employee explains that he has a private health condition for which he seeks treatment during his lunch breaks, and he has a difficult time making it back to the office on time. He has not brought this to your attention because he is embarrassed to discuss the condition. You can provide accommodation for him to make up the time on another day. Were it not for your tactful approach, he may have simply resigned to avoid the discussion.
Being Tactful Preserves Mutual Respect
Using a tactful approach provides mutual respect for both yourself and the other person or people involved. Your boss asks you to take on some of his workloads this week so that he can take a three-day weekend. Your workload is completely full, and you know you will not finish your own tasks if you take on any of his work. You let him know that you cannot take on his additional projects this week, but you would be happy to help him catch up next week when you have more availability. This response allows you to be respectful of your own schedule while showing that you are not opposed to helping others.
Seven Steps to Practicing the Skill of Being Tactful
1. Whenever Possible, Plan Ahead
It is not always possible to know when a difficult or emotionally charged conversation is soon to arise. However, there are many times in both personal and professional situations when you can expect such a discussion is pending.
Whenever possible, plan ahead for the conversation while focusing on what you want to achieve. Identify your desired outcome. Write it down and back it up with your reasoning. If your reasoning is because you want “to win” the argument or other personal reasons, you may need to step away from the issue and calm down before returning. Think about the situation and related facts, reassess your reasoning and goals, and begin to plan your approach,
2. Identify Potential Objections
Think critically about your own ideas. What objections might others raise? If you already know what arguments the opposing side may bring, see if you can address their concerns before they become blockades to your ideas. Ideally, you should aim to demonstrate that you have not only considered their opinions but that you also know how to properly address their concerns.
3. Communicate Effectively
Communicate your ideas calmly and professionally, focusing on your rational and desired outcomes. Listen attentively when the other person (or people) are speaking. Do not fall into the trap of preparing your response while someone else is speaking. Aim to listen closely to their words and allow yourself time to speak once they are done.
4. Ask Appropriate Questions
Ask appropriate questions to clarify the speaker’s message and ensure understanding. This can be an effective tool for demonstrating that you understand their viewpoint and arguments. If the opposing side asks you questions, do not interpret them as an attack on your ideas. Instead, use them as an opportunity to further address and clarify your ideas.
5. Use Non-Verbal Communication Skills
Non-verbal communication can include tone of voice as well as body language, such as posture, use of hands, facial expressions, and more. Watch for non-verbal communication from the other people involved in the situation. Can you interpret their feelings or response to what is being said? When someone else is speaking, can you gather any information about their message from non-verbal cues? You can use this information to plan your responses based on the feedback you are receiving from others in the room.
6. Negotiate Persuasively
There will be times when two people with conflicting ideas both make compelling arguments for objectives that are in direct opposition to one another. When such a situation arises, you will need to negotiate, and you may need to make sacrifices to reach an agreement.
A mutual sacrifice is an effective tool for reaching a resolution, even when one party must give up more than the other. Agreeing to a small sacrifice can establish a sense of camaraderie and prove that your focus is on resolution and not “winning.” When possible, look for a compromise that allows everyone involved to feel the benefit of the results.
7. Schedule a Follow-Up
If a resolution cannot be reached at the present time, schedule a follow-up to finish the conversation later. This can happen for several reasons. Perhaps the conversation becomes too heated, or you can feel yourself getting angry or frustrated with the situation. The opposing side may pose questions that you are unprepared to answer, and you need time to conduct further research or consider the alternatives. Thank them for their engagement, let them know you need time to fully consider what they have said, and excuse yourself to finish the conversation later.
Important Strategies and Tips of Practicing Tact
Remember that you are in control of your emotions. It is possible to enter into an emotionally charged conversation and remain calm. In fact, when one party is able to remain level-headed, it can ease the tension in others and allow for more professional and courteous discussion. Conversely, one person becoming enraged can derail an entire group.
Refrain from walking into the discussion already angry or stressed. If you have planned ahead and considered the opposing side’s point of view beforehand, you should find it easier to remain calm.
Focus on the Facts
Throughout the duration of any situation requiring diplomacy and tact, focus on the facts. This includes during your preparation, the conversation, and any follow-up. Limit your attention to concrete evidence, facts, and figures, and what outcomes are possible in the situation. It is easier to remain level-headed and outcome-driven when you are able to keep emotional responses and personal opinions out of your mind.
Be Aware of Your Own Non-Verbal Communication Skills
As much as you are watching others to see what they are communicating through tone of voice, body language, and actions, you should also be aware of your own. Knowing how you present yourself can help your message to be better received. If you are worried that you subconsciously perform poorly in non-verbal communication, get feedback from someone trustworthy and practice how you present yourself.
Ask Thought-Provoking Questions
In some situations, it is possible to turn your statements into questions that can allow for thought-provoking conversation. This can allow you to address concerns from a place of exploration instead of hostility or might allow for an instance where a new question leads to someone joining in thinking your way.
If the opposing side is proposing an idea that sounds great on paper, but you can foresee many issues from its actualization into policy, ask questions that will bring this to light. Ask them to detail what the policy would look like. Ask them how issues will be handled if they arise. Allow them to address potential problems. By posing a question and allowing the other party to explain it themselves, you allow the question to drive the conversation. Make sure the question is framed in a constructive and open-ended way and not posed as a method of tripping them up. Allow them an opportunity to actually address your concerns.
In other circumstances, the other person may have never considered the thought process which led to your opinions. Think back to your original desired outcome, what are you trying to address? Ask the other person questions about how they would respond to the situation. They may come to agree with your line of thinking.
The Takeaway on Using a Tactful Approach
Using a tactful approach can improve your interpersonal relationships, trust, and respect. It allows for honest and open communication while being mindful of the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of others.
You can improve your tactfulness by remaining outcome-driven, focusing on the facts, and refraining from taking personal offense. The ability to be both kind and well-mannered while also being assertive and forthcoming can pave the way for a tactful and diplomatic approach.
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