Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy. – Isaac Newton
What does that mean?
It means that there are two routes that lead to making a point. One makes the point, but alienates the other person(s), the other does not. The trick is that tact is a social skill, which like any other skill, requires practice to become proficient.
Like any other interpersonal interaction, each person is different, so the playing field is never the same. Flexibility and ability to discern and respond to feedback are key to making your point without annoying the other person.
Why is tact important?
Tact is a form of social lubricant. It reduces friction and helps people interact more smoothly. You can say to your girl that the dress makes her look fat, or you can suggest a different dress (to compliment her eyes, hair, shoes, whatever else you can think of). One way shows a distinct lack of tact, the other shows tact (and in spades if you added the compliment to the comment).
Without tact, it’s hard to make friends, as you are (both figuratively and literally) rubbing them the wrong way. Sir Isaac was quite a bright guy, and this is one of his better contributions to humanity, the laws of motion aside that is.
Where can I apply this in my life?
As an engineer and certified introvert, tact is not my strong suit. I understand the concept and have a passing familiarity with the methods. My problem is that in the engineering world, facts rule. Smart engineers don’t become attached to their ideas, as facts may prove it to be the lesser of the competing ideas. Logic rules, and ego has very little place in my world.
I strive to improve in this aspect of my life. Some of the things I am working on include the usual conscious competence methods, as well as soliciting feedback and pre-framing of the other person.
For conscious competence, I attempt to notice when the other person is showing signs of annoyance or irritation. I also try to remember what the other person’s “hot button” issues are and avoid going there. This is a slow but steady method of learning, provided you can pick up on the other person’s growing annoyance before it is too late. This might not be the best method if you are dealing with a good poker player – one who can hide their emotions well in a card game.
Sometimes, especially when I’m dealing with someone I don’t know or haven’t dealt with before, I ask them to help me with the whole tact issue (soliciting feedback). This way, I hope they will help me learn when I am getting a bit too pushy or overbearing. This method works best with people who have a lot of tact and are of the cooperative spirit. This is best done in a social situation or in a pre-meeting, rather than in a situation where the “game is on the line”, so to speak.
The third method I use is pre-framing. I let them know up front that I’m not very tactful. This warning puts them in a mindset that what I am saying is not designed to irritate them (even if it does), and they will often cut me some slack and go easy on me. It frequently works well with soliciting feedback. This method works fairly well in semi-formal and casual meetings at work, but probably isn’t how you want to start a meeting with a big client.
Note that all three of these methods work well together, and often compliment each-other. Take these tools and add them to your tool box, and mix them in with what has worked for you in the past.
There are a few other ways to learn tact, including a teacher or mentor. I had one in college, and it helped immensely. That said, I still have a long way to go. Besides mentors, you can search the library or the internet for books and videos on the subject. You can also take classes (see below).
If you are young enough, try taking debate as a class. You will get plenty of coaching in the finer points of swaying people without offending them (pretty much the definition of making a point without making an enemy).
For those less youthful, Toastmasters has regular meetings and the members can help you with almost anything related to speaking. Large groups, more intimate settings, tact and so much more can be learned, if you are willing to put forth the time and the effort.
No matter how good at tact we are, we can all stand to improve our tactfulness. We all need to make a point on a regular basis, and we all have too many enemies already. Tact is the best way to go.