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Speak with Caution
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins once said, “Throughout human history, our greatest leaders and thinkers have used the power of words to transform our emotions, to enlist us in their causes, and to shape the course of destiny. Words cannot only create emotions, they create actions. And from our actions flow the results of our lives.” Indeed, words have power…. to uplift, but also to destroy. Therefore, it is wise to be mindful when it comes to the spoken word. A string of words that may not mean much to the speaker but could stick with the receiver for a lifetime. This is true in all settings, whether personal or professional. But when it comes to business, it makes for good dollars and sense to speak with caution.
Everyone has to communicate sensitive or potentially painful information at some point at work. In business, it likely happens more often than in non-profit and charitable workplaces, but it happens everywhere to everyone. And, while it’s important to speak truthfully, it is just as important to speak with tact. Tact allows us to be honest, while respecting a person’s feelings. Tactful communication allows people to preserve relationships, build credibility, and demonstrate thoughtfulness.
Tact and Diplomacy
Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy. Tact is the ability to tell the truth in a way that considers other people’s feelings and reactions. It allows the speaker to give difficult feedback, communicate sensitive information, and say the right thing to preserve a relationship. Tact encompasses many things, including emotional intelligence, respect, discretion, self-awareness, thoughtfulness, compassion, subtlety, honesty, and courtesy.
Diplomacy, a close cousin of tact, is the skill of managing negotiations, handling people, etc., so that there is little or no ill will during or after having a complex or difficult conversation. Diplomacy is the art of letting somebody else have your way. Combined, tact and diplomacy is the ability to assert ideas or opinions — knowing what to say and how to say it — without damaging the relationship by causing offense.
Why Speak Cautiously?
The ability to communicate with sensitivity offers many benefits.
- It is important when there is a need to deliver bad news or provide critical feedback, whether in a personal or professional situation.
- It also strengthens the reputation and builds the person’s credibility.
- It allows one to preserve existing relationships and build new ones. A person who is thoughtful and deliberate when speaking is usually someone who is able to build and keep many close relationships and has deep influence with those people. Careful choice of words shows character, maturity, professionalism and integrity.
- It also demonstrates good manners.
- Careful communication helps avoid conflict, find common ground, and allow others to save face. It can therefore be an important asset in negotiations and in conflict resolution.
- Perhaps most importantly, speaking with care sets a person apart from most others. Anyone who can communicate with grace and consideration will stand out from the crowd and get noticed for the right reasons, which can lead to career opportunities. Anyone who wants to get ahead knows how to speak with care, and chooses to always (not selectively) speak cautiously. Why? Because a person can only apologize for hurtful words, but will never be able to unsay them.
There is a parable that captures the impact of hurtful or harsh words aptly. If a person hammers nails into the surface of a beautiful, highly polished oak table, the veneer of the table is now punctuated with holes. Even if the person removes those nails, the holes will remain and no amount of polish or patchwork will ever return it to its original pristine condition. The same is true about hurtful words. Once said, hurtful or disparaging words puncture the heart and soul of a person, and even if a person apologizes for those words, they will leave small scars thereafter.
How to Speak with Greater Tact
There are various ways to increase one’s ability to speak carefully and thoughtfully.
1. Create the Right Setting and Think Before You Speak
How many times have words been spoken in the spur of the moment and then regretted? The way to avoid that is to first practice active listening when others speak. Then, use empathy and emotional intelligence to connect with people, and try to see things from their perspective. Lastly, work to build trust so that people know that one’s intentions are honest and compassionate. If people believe fundamentally that the communication is coming from a good place, they will be more open to receiving it.
2. Determine the Appropriate Time
Tact means not just saying the right thing but it is also about saying it at the right time. Consider each situation carefully before speaking, and be discreet. Remain aware of whom you’re with – and where you are – before you speak.
3. Choose Words Carefully
The choice of words can influence how others perceive a message. For example, sentences should not start with the word “you”. Such as, “You are always making mistakes in your work.” or even “You need to do better next time”. You statements makes a person feel immediately defensive. Instead, use softer, more optimistic language. For example, “Next time, I think your report could be stronger if more time was spent on organizing the information.”
It is especially important to use “I” statements during conflict, or when giving constructive criticism. When this happens, the speaker is taking ownership of 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 the message.” Or pose it as a question such as “That was not clear to me. Was it clear to you?”
Another option is to use a cushion, or connecting statement, when disagreeing with someone. For instance, instead of saying “You’re wrong. That transaction was very profitable.”, a person could cushion the message by saying, “I appreciate your opinion, but the records show that the transaction was actually profitable.”
Also, when in a tense conversation, it is best to be concise. It may be tempting to keep talking when feeling uncomfortable. However, that actually increases the chance of saying too much or saying something regretful. Honesty and assertiveness is best, and brevity is key. Say only what needs to be said and no more.
4. Watch Body Language
When a person is being tactful, the body language matches the message, and the person appears open, even when giving bad news. Here is body language to consider: make eye contact, don’t cross arms or legs, hold shoulders up. Open body language and a courteous vocal tone communicate your truthfulness and willingness to work together.
5. Never React Emotionally
It is hard to communicate tactfully when angry or upset. Take the time needed to calm down before responding. Learn how to control emotions at work. To calm down from a stressful situation, take a break from it and go for a walk, or use deep breathing and meditation techniques to regain composure.
It is also important to understand people, words, issues, or situations that can provoke communication without tact. By understanding triggers, it is possible to better control emotions or walk away.
These are all good strategies to help safeguard words spoken without intent. That said, there are two additional points to help further understand how tact is influenced.
Tact is strongly influenced by culture. What might be seen as open, fair feedback in some cultures might be seen as profoundly rude in others. A message from a manager from a tactful culture may be seen as weak – or missed entirely – by a team member from a more forthright culture. Therefore, ensure that there is cultural awareness when providing feedback to people from a different background.
Tact and Assertiveness – While tact is critically important, there is also a need to get the message across and ensure that rights are respected. To that end, handle issues assertively, not passively. Tact does not mean weakness.
Quote of the Week
“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”
© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.