The Art of Tact and Diplomacy
Tact and diplomacy are methods used to aid effective communication, especially during negotiation and when attempting to be persuasive or assertive. Using tact and diplomacy appropriately can lead to improved relationships with other people and are a way to build and develop mutual respect, which in turn can lead to more successful outcomes and less difficult or stressful communications.
Tact and diplomacy are skills centred around an understanding of other people and being sensitive to their opinions, beliefs, ideas and feelings. Effective use of such skills comes from being able to sense accurately what another person is feeling or thinking at any given time and then responding in such a way as to avoid bad feelings or awkwardness, whilst at the same time asserting or reflecting your own ideas and feelings back in a delicate and well-meaning fashion.
All people and all communication situations are unique. Developing effective tact and diplomacy skills requires practice and good judgement. These skills are not limited to use in formal communications, such as in the workplace: tact and diplomacy are also important when developing and maintaining friendships, romantic relationships and relationships in the family.
This page uses the words tact and diplomacy interchangeably, in interpersonal relationships both words have broadly the same meaning. Most definitions of tact refer to diplomacy and vice versa.
Defining Tact and Diplomacy:
The ability to assert your ideas or opinions, knowing what to say and how to say it without damaging the relationship by causing offence.
Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.
- Isaac Newton
Diplomacy is the art of letting somebody else have your way.
- David Frost
Prerequisites for Successful Tact and Diplomacy
As well as a level of common sense, good judgement and practice in various situations, the effective use of tact and diplomacy relies on some other key skills, namely:
- Attentive Listening: You need to be able to listen to not just what is being said but also how it is being said in order to understand, and react appropriately to, others. See our page – Types of Listening for more information.
- Emotional Intelligence: People with higher emotional intelligence can usually use tact and diplomacy more naturally in communication. Emotional intelligence is a measure of how well we understand our own emotions and the emotions of others. Learn more, see our page – Emotional Intelligence.
- Showing Empathy: As an extension to emotional intelligence, empathy is your ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. See our page – What is Empathy? for more information.
- Assertiveness: The reason for using tact and diplomacy is very often to persuade or influence others to think or behave in a certain way. Assertiveness is fundamental to this process and a skill that many people lack. We have a whole section on assertiveness for you to explore, see Assertiveness Techniques for more.
- Rapport: Rapport is closely linked to tact and diplomacy as well as emotional intelligence and good manners. Our page Building Rapport examines rapport building in detail.
- Politeness: Being polite and courteous, respecting other people’s view-points and cultural differences is important in many interpersonal relationships. We provide some tips on How to be Polite and discover the links between Politeness and Honesty on our further pages.
Strategies for Tact and Diplomacy
Understanding what is the most appropriate behaviour and in any given situation can be problematic; this is due to the unpredictable nature of communication and of human relations generally.
Sometimes the most appropriate action may be to withhold your opinion, or it may be possible to introduce an idea, or favoured outcome, in such a way that the other person can take ownership of it. In other situations it may be best to take a direct stance, stating exactly what you want and how you intend to achieve it.
We all know people who are capable of talking their way out of difficult situations or who are more likely to be successful at negotiating. Although a certain amount of luck may be attributed to isolated incidents, long-term success is based on strong communication skills, planning, self-control, confidence and emotional intelligence.
The following strategies are designed to help you think about how you can plan for and use tact and diplomacy effectively:
- When you’re planning a potentially difficult conversation you should first focus on knowing what you want to achieve: what is your favoured outcome? Write it down and think about your reasons. Try to take a step back from your personal opinions and think about the facts surrounding the situation.
- Consider and write down what the objections might be from others. Think carefully about your answers to their concerns; demonstrate that you have considered their opinions or arguments.
- Do not enter into negotiations in an angry or stressed way. Try to remain calm and keep an open mind. Find out the facts, as well as what is and what is not possible before you react.
- When communicating, listen to what the other person (or people) has to say. Watch for non-verbal communication, such as body language, and their tone of voice to help you understand. Hold back your own opinions and ideas until you have had chance to understand the other persons point-of-view, and then plan your responses carefully to fit with the feedback you are receiving.
- Negotiate. If what you seek is in conflict with the other person’s ideas, you may have to discuss how sacrifices can be made to provide a better result for both of you in the long run. Mutual sacrifice is usually seen more favourably than one-sided sacrifice. Aim to reach a compromise which results in a win-win situation.
- Strengthen your argument by offering time-scales of when you foresee the benefit of your proposals being reached. Be precise in giving figures and dates. Favour logic and fact over personal opinion. Have something written or drawn out in advance, if it helps.
- If possible turn statements into questions. Rather than directly voicing your opinion, turn your statement into a question for the other person to think about. This not only leads somebody to think along the same lines as you but also makes room for discussion of what interests you and what may potentially benefit both parties. This is particularly useful if you are not entirely sure what you are able to achieve or exactly what is needed to overcome a problem. This strategy often allows for more exploration of options – a more open approach than just stating your opinion. See our pages Questioning and Question Types for more information on effective questioning techniques.
- If the conversation gets heated, try to give yourself room to respond in ways that help rather than inflame a situation. If you can, catch yourself at the moment your gut reaction wants to take over: take a breath and give yourself time. Tell the other person that you need to think about what they just said, rather than feel obliged to answer immediately. Take control of a situation rather than becoming out of control and risk saying or doing something you may later regret. Taking control of social situations in a way that leaves both parties feeling comfortable with the outcome is an important part of showing tact and diplomacy.
- Keep an eye on the prize! Keep your preferred outcome in mind, try not to get distracted, go off on a tangent or get bogged down in irrelevant details. Remember to be assertive – being tactful and diplomatic does not mean bowing to pressure or giving up on what you want.
Always strive for a win-win outcome, that way you will increase your chance of negotiating problematic situations successfully while all parties can feel happier about any compromises made during the process. For some, this comes easier than for others. As with any set of skills, tact and diplomacy can be learnt through the practice and experience of weighing up and balancing different people’s positions.