How To Be Tactful And Diplomatic: 5 Key Tips

Have you ever noticed how brutally honest people tend to focus more on the brutal part than the honest part?

Unfiltered honesty can be of great help when you’re trying to find the right path. Sometimes we all could use a reality check that comes from a real and honest place.

The problem with brutal honesty is that it still makes assumptions. It assumes that the person hearing the brutal honesty will have the emotional maturity or insight to look past the unkind words.

The way you deliver a message is as important as what the message actually is. By angering the audience before or during the delivery of a message, you shift their focus from the message to their own anger.

Brutally honest people rarely care about that. Their honesty is often self-centered, even if it is well-meaning. After all, if they care about making a genuine impact and helping the person, they’d be more interested in ensuring they hear the message rather than ramming an opinion down their throat.

That doesn’t make them bad or harmful people, though. Some people just aren’t good with the social dance, or that’s the type of advice and the form of delivery they would like to receive from others.

That’s where tact and diplomacy enter the picture.

What are tact and diplomacy?

Navigating social situations is an essential skill for getting anything meaningful done. Diplomacy is the ability to step into those social situations, facilitate communication, and guide everyone to a proper resolution.

Different skills within the sphere of diplomacy can make that easier or harder.

You need to have substantial control over your emotions. The diplomat can’t afford to fall into their own anger, frustration, or sadness while trying to work through a situation.

Effective diplomacy requires a degree of emotional detachment because your calmness is subconsciously communicated to the other people involved in the conflict. It shows that you’re not necessarily taking a side, or that if you are taking a side, your position is coming from a calm and considered place.

Diplomacy requires good listening. But being a good listener is more than just hearing what a person is trying to say.

If you’re trying to be diplomatic, whether it’s with a group of people or an individual, there’s a good chance that the situation is overflowing with emotion.

Emotional people often have a difficult time fully expressing themselves and articulating their emotions. Some people have a hard time with that even at the best of times. To be a diplomatic listener, it helps to read the information that is in-between the lines and buried under the emotion.

Diplomacy requires you to articulate your thoughts. As you take in the information from the parties involved in the conflict, it helps to rephrase their thoughts and problems as you understand them. That allows the other people to correct or confirm how you perceive the information, which will help you bring everyone closer to a meaningful resolution.

Compromise is another essential ingredient to diplomacy. A respectful compromise is a situation where all affected parties can walk away from the discussion satisfied.

Most reasonable people are going to understand that they cannot have everything their own way. Reasonable people will know that other people matter, and they will likely need to give some things up to reach a middle ground.

Finding that middle ground can sometimes be complicated, especially if you’re dealing with something personal. You may find that you give too much or too little if you don’t have healthy boundaries.

Tact is a skill under the umbrella of diplomacy. Tact is knowing what to say and what not to say. Tact is knowing when to speak and when to be silent. Tact is being able to tell a hurtful truth in a way that respects and honors the person listening, so they have an opportunity to hear your message.

Tact is the difference between saying:

“You’re acting like a real jerk. You know that?”

and

“Your anger and aggression are intimidating, and I do not appreciate being made to feel uncomfortable.”

How do you develop the skills of tact and diplomacy?

The only real way to develop these skills is to practice, practice, practice. The more you can be tactful and diplomatic, the easier it gets.

They aren’t skills that you can learn well from a book because reading a book doesn’t provide the charged atmosphere or conflict where diplomacy and tact matter most.

The good news is that you don’t need to fight to practice the various parts of diplomacy. You can practice them in different social environments and have them ready to go when conflict happens.

Here are 5 key ingredients to being tactful and diplomatic.

1. Practice active listening.

Acting listening differs from passive listening in that you are devoting your full attention to the speaker.

Turn off the music, electronic devices, television, put the cellphone face down on the table, and look directly at the person speaking, preferably with eye contact.

Make an effort to focus not just on their words but the body language that accompanies those words. What is their facial expression telling you? What is their general body language like? Are they defensive? Hurt? Sad? Angry? Aggressive? Passive? What is being communicated other than the words?

Once they finish speaking their side of the situation, speak it back to them like this. “If I understand you correctly, the problem is…”

That way, if you do need to give advice or offer words of comfort, you will have as clear a picture as possible of what the problem or conflict is about.

2. Pause, carefully consider your words, then speak.

An emotional response is rarely the right choice for navigating a diplomatic situation.

So before you say anything, pause, take a little time to consider whether or not the words you’re about to say accurately reflect the situation, and then speak.

Other people may find this weird unless they know you well. You may need to tell them something like, “I need a minute to consider my thoughts and how to express them.” Most reasonable people will just say “okay” and give you the moment you need.

The reason for this is that you can’t unring a bell. If you say the wrong thing out of anger or frustration, you can’t unsay it. All you can do at that point is further damage control, which is something to be avoided.

A few seconds of consideration of your words before speaking can save you hours of emotional labor and conflict.

3. Ask yourself, “Does this need to be said? How can I say this respectfully?”

The most crucial part of tact is learning when not to speak.

Understand that in many situations, mainly if you try to help other people find a resolution, your opinion does not count for anything.

They have their own opinions, and they’re looking to navigate those rather than muddy the waters further.

Does the opinion you’re about to express need to be said? And if so, does it respect the participants in the conflict and conversation? Does it respect you?

If you decide that your opinion will be helpful, refer back to the previous point and pause before saying anything. Then, avoid phrasing things in a way that attacks someone, their actions, or their opinions.

Instead, offer constructive thoughts in a way that focuses on “I” statements to make it clear that you are not stating absolute facts or instructions, but expressing ideas or opinions.

So, you might say:

“I think you need to be mindful of how he is treating you and where you draw the line.”

rather than,

“He’s a jerk and you’d be better of dumping him because you deserve better.”

Alternatively, asking questions can be a helpful way to get a person or people to reach a conclusion that is best for them, and avoids you needing to actually state your position or opinion:

“How do you feel when he treats you poorly? Is it his personality, or is he just going through a difficult time? Do you feel like things can improve if you both work at it?” 

If you decide that what you are about to say won’t really add anything of value to the conversation, just continue to let the other person or people speak. If you remain silent, you’d be amazed at how other people seek to fill that silence. Alternatively, ask further questions to get more or clearer information on the situation.  

4. Build healthy emotional boundaries for yourself.

The key to standing in the middle of a conflict without getting burned down in the process is to have solid emotional boundaries to protect yourself.

Let the world and other people rage around you if that’s what they will do, but you can’t let yourself get pulled into that if you want to be diplomatic and tactful.

You don’t have to make yourself a part of it if you don’t want to.

Emotional boundaries also help in not taking things personally. Sometimes people speak out of heated anger, or they reveal something negative that may be unkind. The less of that you can take personally or as a reflection of who you are, the calmer and clearer you’re going to be when you’re engaged in a social conflict.

The ability to stand firm with a clear perspective will help you defuse and navigate the situation.

5. Focus on kindness over niceness.

Be kind, but you don’t necessarily need to be nice. Being diplomatic and tactful are all about navigating complicated social situations, which are often going to be negative.

To be nice is to be someone who is agreeable, gentle, and generally pleasant.

To be kind is to act in a way that is beneficial to yourself and other people.

Frankly, being kind and being nice don’t often go hand-in-hand. Sometimes you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear, or get them to see those things for themselves.

Sometimes you have to listen to people cry or watch them suffer through a terrible situation that can’t be changed. Sometimes you have to watch their world shatter into a million pieces.

And that’s why diplomacy and tact are so much more important than brutal honesty.

You don’t want your words to shatter someone’s world in a way that will make it hard for them to put it back together. Kind, honest words with selfless intentions can make the path of healing and reconciliation so much easier for others.

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