Being tactful is, perhaps, one of the most underrated ‘soft’ skills taught to both students and employees alike. Yes, being honest will always be better than sugar-coating your messages, especially if that honesty is crucial to making the other person better at what they’re doing.
There is nothing wrong with being honest; in fact, honesty is something to aspire to, especially when it comes to school and work. But even honesty needs to be tempered with tact.
Being tactful is a skill because it requires you to tell the truth without letting the other person’s feelings be completely destroyed. Yes, ‘brutal honesty’ is sometimes favored in both the academic and the corporate world, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to be insensitive to other people’s feelings. Using truthful things to simply hurt another person would be bullying, and that should be avoided at all costs.
Being tactful isn’t about sugar-coating: it’s about communicating sensitive –and in some cases, painful –messages to our peers without making the other person feel like they’re worthless. It’s about telling the truth, but not letting that truth be a reason for pain; rather, tact makes the truth a solid base to improve from.
When you’re being tactful, you’re able to preserve working relationships better, not to mention builds your credibility as both a competent peer and a caring colleague.
What Does Being Tactful Mean?
When we talk about being tactful, we talk about building a skill called Tact. Tact is a skill that allows people to tell the truth in the most considerate way possible. Note that we say “considerate” and not “least painful”, because truth always carries a kernel of pain with it. There is no way to get around this: some truths will be painful, but being tactful allows you to communicate that truth, whether it’s negative feedback or bad news, in a way that allows both you and the person you’re speaking with to move forward as better people.
Tact as a skill encompasses different disciplines: you need to have a pretty high EQ (emotional quotient) so that you can empathize with the person you’ll be talking to. You need to know the right words to say, you need to say things with subtlety but with clarity, you need to practice diplomacy, and above all, you need to develop a strong sense of respect both for yourself and the person you’re speaking to.
Why Is Being Tactful Important?
Being tactful and communicating with sensitivity are skills that should be taught and perfected early on in a person’s academic life. That way, they carry it over to their professional careers. Being tactful is important, both in school and the office, because it benefits both the sender and the receiver in more ways than one.
One of the benefits of being tactful is the ability to deliver a negative message in such a way that you and your colleague are not stuck in an awkward situation where one person hurts the other person’s feelings. This is important because it allows the both of you to continue working together without any lingering negativity between the two of you, not only preserving your personal and professional relationship, but also keeping the both of you operating at maximum efficiency.
Another benefit of being tactful is that it strengthens your reputation as someone who can be trusted to give honest, credible feedback without tainting it with any negative connotations.
This helps further strengthen your existing personal and professional relationships while allowing you to build new ones. It also helps ensure that you’re treating people fairly at work, regardless of who they are or what position they hold.
Being tactful also shows people that you are professional and mature, not to mention show people that you have strong, moral gumption and integrity. This is important because it allows you to avoid conflict and find common ground, especially when you broadcast the fact that any negative thing you have to say comes from a place of mutual improvement and not personal malice.
Take note, however, that certain cultures view being tactful differently. Here in America, direct and open feedback is prized and valued, but in certain cultures, this could be seen as rude and disrespectful. Meanwhile, the opposite is also true: subtle and gentle communication of criticisms might be the ideal and tactful way to convey a message in some cultures, but it might be seen as passive-aggressive –even malicious –in the United States.
Being mindful of the cultural setting that you’re in and studying how people prefer to interact with one another is an important part of being tactful, as this allows you to be sensitive not just to another person but their culture as well. Yes, sometimes different cultures will have different ideas of what is tactful, gender norms and normativity, inclusivity, and other sensitive notions, but as they say: do as the Romans do.
Remember: being tactful is about communicating a message in a sensitive and compassionate way, but that message still needs to get across. Be sensitive, but be assertive.
How To Develop Being Tactful
Again, tact requires multiple disciplines working in concert with one another, but there are ways to develop quickly and efficiently:
Practice Active Listening and Create a Non-Hostile Environment
We’ve all, at one point or another, spoke before thinking. Most of the time, it lands us in an awkward situation that requires either apologizing or back-pedaling and hoping that the other person quickly forgives and forgets you having misspoken. It’s a difficult situation to be in, but one that can be easily avoided.
Practice active listening, which is when you pay attention to what the other person has to say rather than focusing on how you want to respond. In doing this, you’re able to practice your empathy and diplomacy, as active listening forces you to take into account what the other person is saying and what they’re trying to say.
You also create a conversational environment that is open and trustworthy. By connecting with the other person and letting them feel like they’re being heard, you’re also fostering this feeling of honesty and compassion between the two of you, which lets them know that what you have to reply, whether or not it’s painful, will be true and without malice.
Use the Right Words
Word choice is extremely important in how others perceive your message. In fact, what words you use can directly influence how others receive your message and how they view you as a person. Use inclusive language as often as possible.
This takes a lot of practice, but the best way to start is by avoiding the word ‘you’ at the start of a sentence. For example, instead of saying “you need to do better”, you could switch gears and say “the presentation could have been better”. The difference here is that the ‘blame’, whether intentional or otherwise, is shifted away from the person and onto the actual subject of the conversation.
Another way to improve your choice of words and develop being tactful is by using the word “I” during times of conflict or when you’re providing constructive criticism. The word “I” allows the other person to know that you’re taking ownership of the words you’ll be using and that you’re not saying things to be hurtful, but rather, because you want them to improve.
And that is why it’s important to think before speaking.
Being tactful also means being concise. The less you say, the less you sound like you’re giving lip service. During times of conflict, being concise also decreases your chances of saying the wrong things, not to mention gives you time to think about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.
Keep Your Emotions in Check
Everyone gets angry and upset, that’s just human nature. But as much possible, if you’re in the position to deliver a negative message, keep your emotions in check and broadcast what you have to say in the most emotionally-neutral way possible.
Controlling your emotions, especially when something awful happens, is never easy. By remaining tactful and considerate despite what negativity you’re going through, you’re showing people that you are mature enough to handle problems in a professional manner. This leads to a more open and constructive environment for people.
And remember: just because you’re being tactful doesn’t mean that other people will be, especially if they have an abrasive personality. However, how they speak to you is a reflection of their character; how you speak is a reflection of yours.
Maintain your character by being tactful, and you will always come out of stressful conversations feeling like you’ve done all that you could to make it positive.