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Diplomatic communication: the art of tact

If you’ve ever negotiated your way out of a tricky situation or took part in a business transaction, you’ve probably employed a certain level of tact as a means of achieving your objective.

Diplomacy and tact defined

The Oxford Dictionary defines diplomacy as ‘the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way’. It enables its user to successfully manage relationships, especially with international contacts. Tact is defined as having a ‘skill and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues’, which undoubtedly is an essential component of your interpersonal skills toolkit. Tact and diplomacy are ancient bedfellows and should be exercised frequently for best results. Practice, practice and some more practice.

How to take a diplomatic approach

An example of taking a diplomatic approach in a conversation could be as simple as saying ‘I’m afraid I don’t really like it’ as opposed to ‘It’s awful’. Instead of attempting to clarify a misunderstanding by uttering ‘You obviously don’t understand’ and choosing for ‘Perhaps I’m not making myself clear’ could help bind the language gap between you and your counterpart without harming your relationship or inadvertently hurting their feelings.

“Taking a diplomatic approach in a conversation could be as simple as saying ‘I’m afraid I don’t really like it’ as opposed to ‘It’s awful’.”

What about politeness?

In English-speaking countries, the need to be polite and to use the correct expression is essential. Sometimes people misinterpret English politeness as a form of deceit or dishonesty. As with many things in life, we all have to manage a balance – in this case, between politeness and honesty. This balance does not have a singular definition and will be unique to each user while being dependent on many factors. The correct amount of politeness employed in a conversation could be, for instance, dependent upon a difference in rank, or the distance between you and your counterpart.

Balance is key

On one hand, if you are always completely honest with people, you might risk being perceived as rude or deemed to have poor social skills. This could directly influence your social experiences and reduce your networking opportunities as a result. On the other hand, if you attempt to remain polite at all times you might be illustrating an inaccurate portrayal of yourself and therefore appear deceitful or insecure. This might lead others to believe that you lack confidence or have poor assertiveness skills and, undoubtedly, impede you from building a reputable profile in business.

Being polite and tactful in business

A common example of everyday communication occurs when an English speaker, being polite, says, ‘How are you?’ and the other person answers, ‘Fine, thanks. And you?’. The most common response to this latter question would be, ‘Fine’. The alternative response would be to say that you weren’t ‘fine’, which would be perceived as an inappropriate choice in many cases, especially in business. Therefore, the use of tact is essential for everyday communication.

Finding the perfect balance

English students often struggle with similar examples of daily interaction that involve a certain measure of dishonesty, especially when coming from a background where direct communication is preferred. However, this doesn’t mean that you should avoid employing tact altogether. It might be helpful to consider diplomacy as an integral component to the cultural backbone of the English language. Finding that sweet balance between honesty and tactful communication could open doors to more fruitful intercultural opportunities and help you seal the deal in a challenging negotiation. After all, we are all more likely to comply with a request if it involves the magic word, ‘please’.

Alma Bonger
Alma is an English language trainer and writer from Canada. She is passionate about education, exploring new cultures, and creative collaboration.

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