How do you react when a co-work disagrees with you? How do you address a negotiation that requires you to meet specific goals? How do you approach a customer who appears to be upset or angry? These are just a few examples of the scenarios you might face as you interact with others each day. Communication is part of every job and every relationship.

The process of communication is complex yet occurs in a split second or the very moment a person decides to send a message – whether verbally or in writing. We all have natural, human reactions to circumstances and other people. But do those reactions always produce the best response? The answer is that our gut reactions or initial replies and responses do not always address situations or other persons in the most appropriate manner possible, especially when strong emotional reactions are felt, which means the underlying issue or need may be left unresolved. Poor communication can also create damage to important relationships and even a person's reputation on the job.

There is an approach to communication that when used, is a powerful tool as it can repair and/or build productive interactions and relationships, and create positive outcomes. That method of communication is referred to as the use of diplomacy and tact. It is a combined process of communicating in a thoughtful manner and being aware of the other person or persons that are involved. It is also a method that anyone can learn through practice and the development of self-awareness while communicating with others. Once a person becomes aware of how this approach can transform the process of communication, it will soon be discovered that there are many situations that rely upon the use of both – in order to reach mutually agreeable and satisfying outcomes.

Why is Diplomacy and Tact Needed?

Every person has natural biases that influence how they communicate. Those biases create internalized filters and it can shape how another person or group of people are viewed, along with the manner in which the message is communicated. That may not pose a problem for most interactions, unless it is a co-worker or customer and the biases have created negative perceptions about the other person. This can create inappropriate and ineffective forms of communication. For example, if you have a negative view of a co-worker, for whatever the reason, you may not always choose to communicate thoughtfully or in a collaborative manner.

Another reason for the need of thoughtful communication is due to the use of email as a primary means of communication with others. It can be easy to forget the human element of interacting with someone else when you do not see who you are communicating with. In your career you need to work with others and this is an approach that doesn't come naturally for everyone, especially those with a demanding personality. Many jobs require employees to be polite and courteous, especially with external customers, while addressing demanding and often stressful situations. It can be challenging to communicate and resolve issues or needs in person, and even more difficult when email is the primary form of contact.

What is Diplomacy and Tact?

The word diplomacy has French origins and refers to a diplomat, which requires skill in negotiating or working with others. Diplomacy involves reaching an agreement, being careful about the choice of words used or selecting words that are not biased or inflammatory, demonstrating respect for the other person or persons, knowing how to evaluate situations appropriately, and being seen as approachable.

The word tact has Latin origins and refers to a sense of touch, which can mean developing a well-honed sense of the perspective and disposition of others, while interacting with them. Tact has to do with the tone of a person's communication, being able to hold back emotional reactions, having control, developing measured responses, being rational instead of emotional, knowing what is an appropriate response, empathizing with others, and having a sense of compassion as well.

Together diplomacy and tact create an overall disposition of professionalism, a positive image, and a reputation for being cooperative. This is especially important for a person's career as people remember negative interactions for quite some, and that leads to ineffective working relationships. Through the use of diplomacy and tact, relationships can be repaired and trust restored. It is a method of promoting cooperation and collaboration with others. This is especially important for leaders, who need to be able to influence others to help work towards meeting organizational goals. This is a powerful form of communication and its power comes from encouraging both meaningful and productive exchanges.

The Communication Process

The communication process seems fairly straightforward; the sender has a message to communicate with the receiver. While it occurs quickly, through spoken or written words, there is much more involved to the process. Both the sender and receiver rely upon their perceptions and senses to develop the message before it is sent or interpret the message once it has been received. If the communication occurs in person, there is an opportunity to explain the meaning of the message and clarify any points that may have been unclear or misinterpreted. Face-to-face communication has the inclusion of eye contact and body language, which also influences the message. It provides an opportunity to see how the other person reacts or responds. While the best outcome may not always be guaranteed, the sender and receiver have an ability to interact and that is missing from electronic communication.

Electronic communication relies upon the use of words to convey a message and most everyone has likely received an email that they thought was short, abrupt, or inappropriate – and they are relying on their perception of the tone of the message and its meaning. Once an email has been sent it usually cannot be retrieved, and not being present to help explain its meaning creates a potential barrier. If the receiver has a negative reaction they may either respond in kind or choose not to seek out further clarification, and that is how communication breakdowns occur.

Strategies to Create Powerful Communication

The following scenarios can help to illustrate how to implement the use of diplomacy and tact.

Difficult Conversations and Conflicts: This is a time when emotions are likely to be running high. In these situations, it is important to control your emotions, listen to the other person, acknowledge their feelings rather than discount their perspective, be sensitive to their needs rather than forceful, and first seek to find common ground as a means of reducing resistance. It is challenging to jump from a conflict to a resolution and it must be done through a series of steps, seeking to understand the other person's perspective and then work towards a rational rather than emotional view.

Challenging or Important Negotiations: For these situations it can be easy to have in mind what you need to accomplish and remain focused on your goals, without considering the other party involved, only to create a forceful attitude or disposition. It is important to first break the ice, develop rapport, find common ground, and then seek a mutual understanding of the needs of each party. It can be helpful to transform your demands into requests, as a means of approaching the negotiations in a collaborative manner – and that is what is referred to as reaching a win/win outcome.

Responding to or Communicating by Email: If this is a work-related email that need to be sent, one of the best methods you can use is to first write a draft of what it is you would like to communicate. This will help you to control the tone of the message, while managing the mechanics. A message that contains numerous spelling, grammar, or other mechanical errors can create a negative impression about you and/or your employer. The choice of words used becomes very important and that is how diplomacy and tact come into play. More importantly, many people convey important messages electronically when a phone call or personal visit would be much more effective. If a message is sent and interpreted in a negative manner, that relationship may or may not be easily repaired.

Giving Important Feedback: The use of diplomacy and tact are needed to increase the likelihood that the other person is going to be receptive to the feedback provided. I've found this to be especially true as an educator. I have always advocated the use of the sandwich approach, which starts on a positive note, addresses a developmental issue, and then concludes in a positive manner. The purpose is to be agreeable rather than aggressive, and work with the students rather than demand their compliance. Students are much more receptive to this approach, especially online students who are not present to interact with and further explain to them what was written.  

Other scenarios when diplomacy and tact are needed include delivering bad news and responding to others who are not tactful. In all situations it is important to always be concerned with the words you use, especially with sensitive issues or discussions. You should find ways to work with the other person, lessen their resistance, acknowledge their perspective, and be viewed as someone who is approachable and willing to work together. One-way communication, or communicating a message and not being concerned about how the other party is going to receive and interpret it, is rarely an effective strategy – especially on the job. If you want to communicate in a meaningful manner, while establishing a reputation as someone who is even tempered and easy to work with, use diplomacy and tact – and you will find that how you communicate becomes transformed and much more effective.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.

Dr. J offers the following transformative resources:

• Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs

• Appreciative Andragogy: Taking the Distance Out of Distance Learning

• Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Adjunct Faculty Who Teach Business

• Brand New: Mindset Tune-Up Inspirational Card Deck (The very best of Dr. J's Inspirational Quotes.)

Brand New: Dr. J's First-Class Coffee Mug (What a way to start your day!!)

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