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How to be tactful: Nine science-backed approaches

What is tactful behavior, and what’s the process of how to be tactful?

The dictionary definition of tact is an “adroitness in dealing with difficult or delicate situations,” usually in a way so as “not to offend the other person.” Thought of more directly, 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.

All you need to do to understand the importance of learning how to be tactful is look at the modern moment. Companies are currently making decisions about return to office, hybrid work models, how often employees can work remotely, and more. There are a lot of different seismic shifts happening in this one series of decisions, but there’s also a ton of emotional context here. Some employees may not feel safe returning to an office; some may be anti-vaccine, and some may be decidedly pro-vaccine. Some might be angry at the company for once claiming “remote forever” and then pulling that concept back off the table. You could even call this moment “an emotional reckoning” around what managers want vs. what employees want, all with our various belief structures about health and individual rights mixed in.

Because of how complex and emotionally fraught this can get, everyone needs to be displaying some form of tact in the workplace (and in their personal relationships). You need to be able to communicate around a difficult, divisive issue -- and not offend. If you’ve ever spent 10 minutes on Facebook or another platform, you know that sometimes seems really hard to do. 

Tact encompasses many things, including emotional intelligence , respect, discretion, self-awareness , thoughtfulness, compassion, subtlety, honesty, diplomacy, and courtesy.

What’s the process of learning how to be tactful, then?

Table of contents

What is tactful behavior and why would it be important?

We defined some of tactful behavior above, and as for why it would be important: it creates a greater sense of respect at work, especially if you’re a manager and consistently display tact with your employees. They respect you more, ultimately work harder for you as a result, and even the time working together seems to be more enjoyable. No one wants a bully or a micromanager as a boss, and no one wants someone who constantly offends them either. Tact underpins the entire work experience when done properly and consistently. 

Communicating with tact also creates a “blue ocean” approach to your career -- because many managers and employees don’t communicate tactfully, you’ll stand out, and that can help you advance as a respected, engaged member of a team that others trust not to violate their psychological safety.

What’s an example of tact?

A lot of how to be tactful does come down to word choice. If you’re concerned about a colleague not getting enough done, you don’t tell them they’re “slow.” Rather, you’d talk about “ways to be more efficient.” If someone bombs in a presentation, you don’t tell them it was “awful” and “sloppy.” Instead, offer to work with them on crafting the next one step-by-step. 

In a COVID-specific context, during a conversation about vaccinations, you might simply note that based on the information you consumed, you thought it was a good (or not a good) idea at the time for you. This is also an example of “de-escalating” a situation, which seems like a police term but has many ties to work. If you understand more about how to be tactful and general tactfulness with your colleagues, you can turn emotionally-tense moments into team growth moments. 

How can a person be tactful?

There are many approaches around how to be tactful, including:

  • Active listening: This is probably the most important element of tact. You need to listen to people and what they are actually saying, as opposed to listening just to find a place to respond or make your point. If you begin your responses by summarizing what they just said, this builds trust within the dynamic, and makes the other person feel heard -- which is a sense of belonging, which underscores the entire human condition. Listen to understand and create empathy, not just find your response. 
  • Use “I statements: 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."
  • Strong body language: Make eye contact. Don’t cross your arms. Don’t slouch. Don’t appear disinterested. All those elements can make the other person believe you to be tactless. 
  • Try to leave emotional reaction and response in the rearview mirror: Most flare-ups at work, or employees getting disgruntled enough to consider leaving, stem from an overly-emotional or poorly-worded discourse with a manager. We’re all human beings and we’re emotional creatures who sometimes have visceral reactions to things. It’s important to keep that in check at work as best you can, and if something really bothered you, consider doing the check-in about it later, when you’ve had time to manage your breathing, control your emotions, maybe take a walk, etc. Being overly-emotional often reads as tactless, even if it wasn’t your intention.
  • Timing: In a work context -- you get promoted (yay), and when you go to tell your colleague, she tells you she got fired (boo). You probably shouldn’t mention the promotion at that moment. In a personal context -- you get pregnant (yay), and you want to tell friends, but one friend is going through a breakup (boo). Hold your information until later so that the focus of the group can be on working with the one who’s going through the breakup. 
  • Be mindful of identity: There are many cultural differences that should be acknowledged in our world, which are based on where people are from, how they were raised, what their race and backgrounds may be, or even what generation they are coming from. Identity is a hugely important component for people right now, be that left-right ideologically, LBGTG, pronouns, etc. Be mindful of someone’s specific identity, because if you cross their norms, it can be seen as tactless.
  • Be polite: This should go without saying, but being polite and courteous, respecting other people’s view-points and cultural differences is important in many interpersonal relationships.
  • Practice for the possible concerns or pushback: Before you enter a tough conversation, think about what the other person might say in response to you. Think carefully about your answers to their concerns; demonstrate that you have considered their opinions or arguments.

How to be diplomatic and tactful at work

All of the above strategies will work. Beyond that, though, you need to understand the specific politics of where you work. What is the culture? How transparent is it? Who are the real decision-makers? How do they like to be presented with information? Who has their ear? How have they responded to certain ideas and feedback in the past? You need to know as much as possible about personalities and politics, because it will allow you to move away from topics or issues where “a win” is not possible, and the only likely outcome is being seen as tactless. 

There’s a concept called “latitude of acceptance,” which is how far away from a core belief one can move. For example: “I hate fast food, it’s awful for you.” Some people will never waver from that. Others might say “I don’t like fast food, but it makes sense in some situations.” That’s a latitude of acceptance. It’s the same way with how to be tactful at work. Some people will never budge from a specific belief or position, so if you approach them and try to enable change, they will likely view you as tactless. If you approach other people with a new way of thinking about work and getting it done efficiently, they might embrace the change. It’s often about knowing your audience.

How to be tactful in a relationship

Again, many of the above strategies work both personally and professionally. 

In addition:

  • The pause button: Emotions get heated, as we discussed above. When you see this is coming, don’t lean into emotions. Instead, hit the pause button, and even offer to return to the conversation later. Also, respond with statements such as “I see it differently,” as opposed to “You’re missing the point.” Bring down the boil.
  • Find common ground: Tact demonstrates maturity and confidence. If you and someone you work with never seems to see eye to eye, find common ground and build more positive experiences around that. It’s rare that two people don’t have at least one thing in common either in their personalities or work ethic. For example, if you tend to talk fast and use an extensive vocabulary, but the other person speaks slowly with less verbal precision, modify your style of communication to meet the other person’s needs.

The bottom line on how to be tactful

It takes patience, active listening, understanding of another person’s needs, empathy, and a level-headed communication style. It’s not always easy, no, but nothing about communication at work (or personally) is ever as easy as we think it should be. 

If you’d be interested in learning how to be more tactful, consider our Increase EQ coaching!

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