Learning the Art of Being Tactful

PEGGY noticed her son speaking cruelly to his younger brother. “Do you think that was the best way to talk to your brother?” she asked. “Look how upset he is!” Why did she say that? She was trying to teach her son the art of acting tactfully and showing consideration for the feelings of others.

The apostle Paul encouraged his younger companion Timothy to be “tactful toward all.” In so doing, Timothy would not trample on the feelings of others. (2 Timothy 2:24, footnote.) What is tact? How can you improve in this area? And how can you help others to develop the art?

What Is Tact?

A dictionary defines tact as “the ability to appreciate the delicacy of a situation and to do or say the kindest or most fitting thing.” The word originally referred to touch. Just as sensitive fingers can perceive if something is sticky, soft, polished, hot, or hairy, so a tactful person can sense the feelings of other people and can discern how his words or actions affect them. But doing this is not just a skill; it involves a genuine desire to avoid hurting others.

In the Bible account of Elisha’s servant Gehazi, we find an example of one who is tactless. A Shunammite woman whose son had just died in her arms came to see Elisha, seeking consolation. When asked if everything was all right, she replied: “It is all right.” But when she approached the prophet, “Gehazi came near to push her away.” Elisha, on the other hand, said: “Let her alone, for her soul is bitter within her.”​—2 Kings 4:17-20, 25-27.

How could Gehazi act so rashly and tactlessly? It is true that the woman did not express her feeling when asked. But then, most people do not reveal their feelings to just anyone. Nevertheless, her emotion should have been visible in some way. Elisha apparently recognized it, but Gehazi did not, or he chose to ignore it. This well illustrates a common cause of tactless conduct. When a person is overly concerned with the importance of his job, he can easily fail to recognize or care about the needs of those he deals with. He is much like the proverbial bus driver who was so concerned with arriving on time that he did not stop to pick up passengers.

To avoid being tactless like Gehazi, we should strive to be kind to people, for we do not know how they really feel. We should always be alert to signs that reveal a person’s feelings and respond with a kind word or act. How can you improve your skills in this regard?

Understanding the Feelings of Others

Jesus was outstanding in perceiving people’s feelings and at discerning how best to treat them kindly. Once he was dining in the house of Simon, a Pharisee, when a woman “known in the city to be a sinner” approached him. Again, no words were spoken, but there was plenty to observe. “She brought an alabaster case of perfumed oil,  and, taking a position behind at [Jesus’] feet, she wept and started to wet his feet with her tears and she would wipe them off with the hair of her head. Also, she tenderly kissed his feet and greased them with the perfumed oil.” Jesus recognized what all of this meant. And even though Simon did not say anything, Jesus was able to discern that he was saying within himself: “This man, if he were a prophet, would know who and what kind of woman it is that is touching him, that she is a sinner.”​—Luke 7:37-39.

Can you imagine the harm that would have been caused if Jesus had pushed the woman away, or if he had said to Simon: “You ignorant man! Can’t you see that she is repentant?” Instead, Jesus tactfully presented Simon with an illustration about a man who forgave one person a large debt and another person a much smaller debt. “Which of them will love him the more?” Jesus asked. Thus, rather than appearing to condemn Simon, Jesus was able to commend him for the correct reply that Simon gave. Then he kindly helped Simon to recognize the many signs of the woman’s true feelings and her expressions of repentance. Jesus turned to the woman and kindly indicated to her that he understood her feelings. He told her that her sins were forgiven and thereafter said: “Your faith has saved you; go your way in peace.” How those tactful words must have strengthened her resolve to do what was right! (Luke 7:40-50) Jesus succeeded in being tactful because he observed how people felt and responded compassionately.

Just as Jesus helped Simon, so we can learn and then help others to understand the unspoken language of emotion. Experienced ministers can sometimes teach this art to newer ones in the Christian ministry. After a visit they make when sharing the good news, they can analyze the signs that indicated the feelings of those they met. Was the person timid, skeptical, annoyed, or busy? What would be the kindest way to help him? Elders can also assist brothers and sisters who may tactlessly have offended one another. Help each one to understand the feelings of the other. Does he feel insulted, ignored, or misunderstood? How could kindness make him feel better?

Parents do well to help their children to cultivate compassion, since this is what will move them to act tactfully. Peggy’s son, mentioned at the outset, noticed his younger brother’s flushed face, pouting lips, and tearful eyes, and he recognized the pain his brother was experiencing. Just as his mother had hoped, he felt regret and resolved to change. Both of Peggy’s boys made good use of those skills learned in childhood and years later became productive disciple-makers and shepherds in the Christian congregation.

Show That You Understand

Tact is especially important when you have a complaint against someone. You can so easily hurt his dignity. Specific commendation is always appropriate first. Rather than criticize him, concentrate on the problem. Explain how his action affects you and exactly what you would like to see changed. Then be prepared to listen. Perhaps you have misunderstood him.

 People like to feel that you understand their viewpoint even if you do not agree with it. Jesus spoke with tact, showing that he understood Martha’s distress. He said: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and disturbed about many things.” (Luke 10:41) In like manner, when a person speaks of some problem, rather than offering a solution before hearing the matter out, a tactful way of showing that you understand is to repeat the problem or complaint in your own words. This is a kind way of showing that you understand.

Recognize What Not to Say

When Queen Esther wanted to ask her husband to undo Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, she tactfully arranged matters so that her husband would be in a good mood. Only then did she broach this delicate topic. But it is also instructive to notice what she did not say. She tactfully omitted reference to her husband’s share in the responsibility in the evil scheme.​—Esther 5:1-8; 7:1, 2; 8:5.

Similarly, when visiting a Christian sister’s unbelieving husband, rather than immediately showing him the Bible, why not begin by tactfully inquiring about his interests? When a stranger comes to the Kingdom Hall informally dressed or someone returns after a long absence, give him a warm welcome rather than comment on his dress or absence. And when you notice that a newly interested one has a wrong viewpoint, it may be best not to correct him right away. (John 16:12) Tact includes kindly recognizing what not to say.

Speech That Heals

Learning the art of tactful speech will help you to enjoy happy relations with others, even when someone has misunderstood your motives and is bitter and resentful. For example, when the men of Ephraim “vehemently tried to pick a quarrel” with Gideon, his tactful reply included a clear explanation of what had really happened and an honest appraisal of what the men of Ephraim had achieved. This was tactful because he recognized why they were upset, and his modesty made them feel better.​—Judges 8:1-3; Proverbs 16:24.

Try always to consider how your words will affect other people. Making the effort to be tactful will help you to experience the joy described at Proverbs 15:23: “A man has rejoicing in the answer of his mouth, and a word at its right time is O how good!”

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Experienced Christian ministers can teach newer ones to be tactful

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Parents can teach their children to have feelings for others