Mastering the Art of Tact and Diplomacy (And How It will Help Your Career)

Most of our lives revolve around personal and professional connections with others. This is the reason networking is heralded as one of the most valuable things you can do to advance your career.

As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” but that statement stops just shy of truth for me because it’s not about who you know, actually it’s about how you treat the people you know. Many people think that in order to practice tact and diplomacy they have to hide their true feelings when in reality, those two things make it easier for others to accept their truest feelings.

Human beings respond better to things that are pleasing. When thoughts begin in our heads, sometimes they are raw, blunt, and/or downright unacceptable to say aloud. Individuals without filters tend to share their thoughts in this premature form, and we all know how difficult it can be to work with someone like that.

Tact is like a really good suit for thoughts that aren’t ready to socialize. If you can learn how to dress up your thoughts and make them presentable, they’ll still be what they are at the core, but others will be far more likely to receive them; and if you can make others receive your ideas, the potential for influence is virtually endless.

It might take work, but these are the steps you can practice to share your thoughts gracefully, and embody tact:

1. Fully understand what you mean.

When I was growing up, one of my mother’s many sayings was, “Don’t do things half-tail.” That’s because half-assed work gets you only half of the results you’re looking for. If you’re going to go to someone with a thought, you first should have fleshed out exactly what you want to convey.

While it isn’t always necessary to have a script rehearsed in your mind, you need to know the meaning behind your words if you expect someone else to do the same. Italian diplomat and author Daniele Varè once said, “Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” You can’t do that if you don’t know how to draw someone a map to your destination. 

2. Be empathetic.    

Picture yourself on the receiving end of your thoughts. How would you feel? What would your reaction be? Would you be persuaded to action or change?

Sometimes when we have an idea that we deem valuable, we forget that others might not agree immediately. Imagining someone else’s feelings grants you the opportunity to workshop your ideas without having to put yourself out there just yet.

If you need some guidance, author Roman Krznaric explores five ways to practice empathy in a recent piece for Time, and in his novel Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It.

3. Pick the right time.

Just because you have a good idea or poignant thought doesn’t mean now is a good time to share it. There’s nothing wrong with being an opportunist, but if you’re practicing empathy first, you should be able to gauge whether or not others would agree with your timing.

No matter how fantastic your thoughts, if your audience isn’t in the proper headspace to receive them, you may have wasted the opportunity, and sometimes you don’t get another. You may think it’s best to release it now, but be patient and let the value accrue. The impact might be even greater in a more suitable climate.

In a more comical take on things, Winston Churchill once said, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” You don’t have to sacrifice or stifle your thoughts in order to be tactful. In fact, I’ve found that one of the most satisfying things to do in a conflict is tastefully give someone a piece of my mind because it allows me to be assertive without being an ass.

No one can fault you for being both considerate and convincing, so whether you’re in the midst of an argument or on the cusp of sharing something brilliant, tact is always the best vehicle to transport your ideas.