We all hear about how we should be tactful, but what is tact, really? According to Dictionary.com, tact is a “keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense; skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations.” To put it another way, tact is kindness skillfully extended.
While tact is not an easily acquired skill, using it will serve you well in every aspect of your life. Here are five techniques to keep in mind if you want to develop this valuable ability.
1. Choose your words carefully.
Your word choices can make all the difference when delivering information, therefore use positive words rather than negative words.
Example: When you say to someone, “You should…” it sounds like a command. Instead say, “Let’s try…” or “Have you considered…”
2. Cushion your negative feedback.
Whenever you have to deliver negative feedback, cushion your comments in a three-fold delivery. Start with a positive comment first, followed by the negative information, finishing with another positive or forward-looking statement. Avoid using “but” or “however” to connect your first two sentences; those two words can negate any positive intent that comes before them.
Example: “I really appreciate your staying late last night to work on the project. I want to talk to you about a section that needs some tweaking. Can you carve out some time to work on that today?” Now insert the word “but,” between the first two sentences and see how it negates the compliment.
3. Think before you speak.
When someone speaks to you, especially in a confrontational situation, it’s tempting to go with your gut reaction and speak without thinking. Take a moment to digest what you hear and formulate your thoughts before speaking. By doing this, you will come across in a more professional manner and avoid saying something you might regret.
Example: Your client says, “I really don’t think your report is thorough enough.” You may be tempted to immediately defend yourself or make an excuse. Your response would be better received if you said something like “I’d love to hear your feedback and I’m open to suggestions on how to improve it.”
4. Be mindful of your timing.
You may intend to say the right thing, but if your timing is off, your message may not be well received. Always ask, “Do you have a moment?” or “Is this a good time to speak?” This is especially crucial if you have to present bad news or deliver criticism. If you get the feeling that the time is not right, listen to your intuition and table the discussion for a more appropriate time.
Example: You need to critique a co-worker but you know he is going through some personal issues at home. If possible, save your conversation for a time when you both are relaxed and the co-worker is more receptive to an evaluation.
5. Be discreet.
Discretion is the ability to act without drawing attention or causing embarrassment. When you are discreet, it shows respect for the other person. And by giving respect, you will get respect in return.
Example: If a co-worker makes an error in a presentation or does something inappropriate to embarrass you or someone else, don’t bring it up in front of others. Instead, discretely pull this person aside and gently point out the problem. Allow him or her to correct the matter before it escalates and becomes a serious problem.
Tact is just another tool in your toolbox of manners. Being tactful, honest, sincere and considerate of others will serve you well and give you the clear advantage.