The Art of Tact and Diplomacy

My first experience with having to pay any attention to what others thought of me came at the age of five as I dutifully delivered my first report card to Mom. It was not well received and turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. Up to that time it had never occurred to me that anyone outside my immediate family other than Santa Claus would care enough about my daily activities to feel compelled to provide written commentary. In this case, that caring person was my kindergarten teacher, who, as far as I was concerned, was unnecessarily disquieted regarding my inclination to while away the time watching the squirrels play in the trees outside the classroom rather than gaily participate with my schoolmates in eating white paste and finger-painting one another’s hair.

Over the ensuing years I would continue to run into people who, for one reason or another, would feel it their duty to share with me their various and unsolicited opinions as to where I had gone wrong. And I confess that I have not always taken such criticism well, constructive or not. Granted, in my case, pure volume of opportunity could be an issue here. But in any event, I found that I am as receptive to a little tact as the next guy.

Tact is a very important skill. Many years ago a colleague of mine who is a business consultant told me that I would know that I had mastered the art of tact when I found that I could give someone some really bad news and then have them thank me for it.

Diplomacy is often considered synonymous with tact. However, it can be a little trickier, since oftentimes there are more people involved than just you and one other person. I recall hearing someone say that President Obama is the ultimate diplomat. Some claim that, when he engages in discussion with two other parties who are at odds with one another, by the time he leaves the room they both think he is on their side.

And tact requires patience. Oddly enough, it seems that the people who require the most tact and patience are those who are least likely to return the favor. I have been known to tolerate this “walking on eggshells” foolishness when it was in my best interests (a particular boss comes to mind), but generally have little patience with those who have little patience.

We all use tact and diplomacy every day, of course. We use it when we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Or when we wish to elicit a certain response from someone, for their benefit or our own. Tact can keep us out of contests of litigation or fisticuffs. And diplomacy often keeps the skids greased regarding our personal relationships with one another.

For good reason, tact and diplomacy were invented shortly after Adam lost his rib. Those who do not master these skills at an early age are destined for a more difficult life than the rest of us.

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