For years I’ve been fascinated by the art of diplomacy, how to say even difficult things with sensitivity and respect, how to be gentle, indirect, but also clear. After observing some very tactful people around me, and doing many experiments myself, I’ve gathered a number of tips on how to speak with tact.
These tips are for voicing things that are hard to hear, such as critiques, disagreements, or requests that the other person might dislike. Some believe that it’s “inauthentic” or even “game-playing” to speak with diplomacy, and would rather be direct and blunt. However, these folks are engaging in black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. It’s totally possible to be both tactful and sincere, considerate and genuine at the same time. Allow me to explain in the tips and stories below.
Sometime ago, my friend Ruby (all names in this article are pseudonyms) asked me that, if I’m not too busy, she would love for me to beta read for her. I replied, “Sure, I’d love to. I have a sci-fi novel too. Do you want to do a beta reader exchange, and give each other feedback?”
Here, I don’t voice a critique or a complaint. But I slip in a request that implies my message: If I offer to beta read for someone without asking for anything in return, that’s one thing. But if you ask me to beta read for you, please offer to beta read for me in exchange, since these tasks take many hours of my time. This is especially if we are not close or have not been in touch for a long time. I had some friends ask me for beta reading feedback without offering anything in exchange, but I was willing to do it because we were reasonably close, we talked regularly, and I had already expressed interest in their story.
As a result, Ruby responded that she would be glad to beta read my story too, but she would take a while with her story. Even more importantly, we were still able to interact in a friendly manner.
Instead of saying something aggressive, like, “I disagree” or “You’re wrong” or “Your logic is flawed”, you can softly suggest an alternative possibility.
Once, I said to a friend, “It’s not good to refuse to hire someone just because they’re male. (Our conversation was about affirmative action.) A friend of mine witnessed a hospital hiring decision, where the guy had a much better resume than the girl, but they hired the girl anyway for diversity purposes. I am for gender equality, but I don’t think doing the opposite (i.e. rejecting applications from men in favor of women, regardless of their respective qualifications), is the right thing to do. A person would want to be hired for their abilities, not for their gender, right?”
My friend replied in a gentle tone, “Well, I think it’s still important to make an effort to hire women, as they may have had fewer opportunities than men did to build a strong resume in the first place.”
It had never occurred to me that male privilege would lead to more job opportunities for men to put onto their resumes in the first place, so I accepted my friend’s point. Note that my friend was speaking in a soft, non-aggressive tone, and though they disagreed with me, they did not shut down or suppress my viewpoint. Rather, they gently stated their point-of-view, and explained their reasoning without attacking my perspective. Consequently, not only did I not feel hurt or offended, I also got to expand and form a more nuanced point-of-view on the topic of affirmative action.
In a more recent example, a friend, Andy, complained about our supervisor. Andy disliked it when our supervisor said, “Carry on” to urge him to keep talking about his client. Andy perceived the phrase “carry on” as formal, detached, a little stylized, and cold. I replied in a calm, soft voice, “Hmmm, well, he is much older than us and English is not his first language. So maybe ‘carry on’ doesn’t sound the same to him as it does to us.” For context, our supervisor was an older man with white hair, and he came from Czechoslovakia.
Andy conceded that this could be a possibility. Though my friend didn’t necessarily agree with me, he wasn’t angry either, and our interactions went on smoothly without any strain or awkwardness. After all, I had framed my suggestion as another possibility, rather than as an “I’m right, you’re wrong” stance.
Sometimes, I would meet up with a close friend, Elaine, for a meal. I live in downtown Toronto, while she lived in a region far from downtown. Often before these meals, I would ask if she could come to my apartment to take pictures of me in a Halloween costume, or with some new accessories that I acquired. Once, when I asked her for this same favor, she said, “I don’t enjoy travelling all the way downtown to take pictures for people.” And she followed this by cracking a lighthearted joke about something.
It was then I realized that I had overstepped a boundary. So I responded, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to take your help for granted or to be unappreciative of you! Would you like it if I treated you to a meal? Or a dessert, or to cover your travel expenses, whatever you prefer?” My friend answered that she did not feel unappreciated at all.
Regardless, the message had already been conveyed; she successfully let me know that I had crossed a boundary, but she was polite and respectful when she conveyed this message. In the end, I treated her to a meal for her time and effort in helping me take photos.
In my career counselling course, we got into groups to represent and defend each career counselling theory. After a group presented, people from other groups could make critiques. What I would do when I raised a critique, was to sincerely praise some parts of their theory, and then point out some of their shortcomings in a respectful way.
My group presented on Holland’s theory, which was an approach that divides occupations into different themes: artistic, social, conventional (e.g. banking, clerical, accounting), entrepreneurial, realistic (e.g. carpenter, hairdresser, athlete, military sergeants, anything to do with physical action with concrete objects), or investigative (e.g. scientist, mathematician, engineer, computer programmer).
We all have a hierarchy of interests, where we prefer some things over others. I’m personally highest on investigative, artistic, and social, and am very low on the other three. Some jobs are in more than one occupational theme (e.g. an athletic trainer is in realistic, investigative, and social). Holland theorized that in order to feel happy and satisfied, we must take careers that fulfill our innate interests as much as possible.
Another career counselling theory, was SCCT (Social Cognitive Career Theory), which encompasses many ideas. The central premise is that we all find careers based on what we think we are good at, according to our past experiences in that career. For instance, I never once got an A in middle school music, so I don’t want a career in this field, since I believe that I suck at music.
In our career counselling class debate, I don’t recall the precise arguments I made, but after the SCCT group presented their theory, I raised my hand and said, “It’s very good that you cover the issue of self-efficacy and self-belief, since they are important factors for sure. Yet, my concern is that the theory is a bit vague on what types of interests the person may have. What if a client has no clue what they’re good at? Since I’ve met people who truly have no idea. It would be helpful, in my opinion, to do a career inventory, so you can get a picture of what sorts of things the client likes to do and seems to be skilled at. We can think about self-efficacy and confidence after narrowing down what career paths are available. After all, a client may have never heard or thought of some career choices in the inventory.”
My classmates responded graciously to my comment, without any defensiveness or irritation in their manner, since I had mixed in compliments and agreements with my critique, to show that I appreciate and respect their perspective too, even if I don’t completely subscribe to the SCCT.
In another one of my counselling courses, a group of classmates did their presentation, and encouraged us to write honest, anonymous feedback to each other on slips of paper. We only got feedback from classmates sitting at the same table, but it made me nervous anyway. I got feedback slips from two classmates, and one of them wrote:
“I commend your bravery [in coming out as transgender to the class].
Have more confidence in your interactions [with other people].”
My other classmate’s feedback, though I don’t recall what it said now, followed a similar style, where they gave me some warm praise, and their negative feedback felt so compassionate and gentle, that it didn’t hurt at all. I was pleasantly surprised at how benign my classmates’ feedback was. For the phrase “Have more confidence in your interactions,” it feels less like negative feedback, and more like a kind, sympathetic encouragement for me to have more faith in my abilities. In fact, by telling me to have more confidence, they’re implying that I’m humble, and that I’m much better than I believe I am. So this critique actually sounds like a compliment!
A friend of mine, Leslie, did something similar, where he turned a request that could easily feel like a critique, into a dose of praise. Leslie was a facilitator of a transgender support group. In one of our group discussions, the topic was on the lack of queer and trans spaces that have more POC (people of color). For context, Leslie is white, one of the co-facilitators was black, and the other co-facilitator was Asian. I myself am Asian. After the group, when I got back home, Leslie and I chatted on Facebook Messenger. Leslie said he was very happy to hear me speak, and that he learned a lot from me. Afterwards, I went on our Facebook group, and saw that Leslie had posted a thank you note to everyone for coming to the group meeting. I commented: “Thank you, Leslie, for giving us a space to talk about such an important topic. We had a great discussion last night!”
In the morning, Leslie messaged me, “Hey! Could you edit your beautiful comment to include the other facilitators too? ^_^”
For background context, I came to the group meeting a little late, so I missed the introduction; thus, I thought that Leslie was the main facilitator, and that Jem and Arthur, the two co-facilitators, were more like helpers or guest speakers. So my intention when I wrote my comment, was to thank Leslie for caring about and valuing racial diversity in our LGBTQ+ spaces, especially as he is white himself. However, after thinking more about Leslie’s request to me and about the general situation, I realized that I had unwittingly prioritized Leslie, who is white, over the other two co-facilitators, who are POC, for this topic that was specifically about POC-inclusion in LGBTQ+ spaces!
I was embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed my problematic wording, even though I had also misunderstood and believed that the two co-facilitators were helpers or guest speakers. So I edited the comment and wrote: “Thank you, Jem, Arthur, and Leslie, for giving us this space to talk about such an important topic. We had a great discussion last night!”
Leslie thanked me in our private messages for editing the comment, and appreciated that I put his name last. I added to Leslie that I also purposefully put Jem first, because Jem is black, and Arthur is Asian, like me. I didn’t want to seem like I was prioritizing a fellow Asian.
Thus, Leslie made a request that could easily feel like a criticism, yet he phrased it in a way that sounded like a compliment instead, by asking me to edit my beautiful comment. He let me know that there was a problem that needed fixing, but simultaneously, he expressed his sincere appreciation for my comment, which he understood to be well-intentioned on my part.
6. Ask for Why Something Happened Without Sounding Defensive, by Sincerely Apologizing for the Reasons That You Guess
Once, I added a bunch of new acquaintances from a trans support group on Facebook. One of these folks, Ronnie, accepted my friend request within seconds. But a few days after, when I went on his page to add him to one of my friend lists, I saw that we weren’t FB friends anymore! I panicked and Googled reasons for why someone might unfriend you. One suggested reason, was that you post too many photos of travel, food, babies, or animals, which is off-putting to some people. I don’t post any of that, so I thought it might be this other suggested reason: the person feels that you post too often, that you are clogging up most of their feed.
With that in mind, I sent a private message to Ronnie: “Hey Ronnie, I wanted to add you to a friends’ list, but noticed that we weren’t Facebook friends anymore! I’m sorry that I post so often—I usually don’t post this frequently, but I’ve just been extra sleep deprived lately, and writing on Facebook helps to wake me up.”
Ronnie replied a bit later, “Oh, I can accept again. But I’m not sure I know you.”
Imagine the relief I felt at his response! He had unfriended me not because he found my posts or my personality annoying, but because he thought I was a complete stranger. And so I recounted to Ronnie that one time we met in person, and summarized the conversation we had. Ronnie said that he remembered me now, and re-accepted my friend request. See how much hurt and confusion was avoided just by reaching out in an indirect, non-confrontational, and respectful way?
Here is another instance where reaching out prevented hurt and misunderstanding: I regularly post in our trans support Facebook group. Thus far, moderators had always approved my posts. But once, I waited 24 hours and did not receive an approval for my post. I panicked, and later private-messaged the main moderator, “Hey, I noticed that my latest post wasn’t approved. I’ll be happy to edit my post if it wasn’t appropriate!”
The moderator answered soon afterwards, thanking me for letting them know. They informed me that they simply missed my post, and then approved it for me.
Once again, I felt a great sense of relief that I hadn’t done anything offensive and made people hate me.
Some months ago, I did a writing tag created by Martha, who is a friend of a friend. Martha always reads and comments on other people’s responses to her tags. But after I waited for several weeks, there was still no comment from her, so I sent an email to Martha, “Hi Martha, just wondering if you read my response to [name of writing tag]? Of course, there is no obligation to like or comment, but I emailed you just in case you didn’t see it!”
Martha emailed back soon later, saying that she did see my post, but she was busy moving to another country, so she had forgotten about it. And so she went to my writing tag blog post to comment. Thus, another situation was saved! If I hadn’t asked, I would have wallowed in uncertainty, worrying that I had done something to upset her, even though I didn’t know her very well. Note that when I asked her, I had mentioned, “Of course, there is no obligation to like or comment,” implying that I respect her time and energy, so she didn’t have to respond to my post if she didn’t want to.
It befuddles me how many people will give unconditional promises to others, like, “You can talk with me anytime!” “If you ever need help with anything, all you need to do is to tell me and I will get it done for you.” “If you ever need company, give me a ring and I’ll come over.” Yes, most people are sensible enough not to take these offers too seriously or literally, but some people will take them seriously, or may take advantage of this “unconditional” help.
For me, I prefer to set clear limits on what I can do for people, not just out of respect for myself, but out of respect for them too. The last thing I want to do, is to disappoint others and break my promises. So I never make promises like the ones I listed in the previous paragraph. Instead, I would say something like, “Sure, I’d love to beta read your book! As long as you have a generous and flexible deadline, because I might beta read really slowly depending on how busy I am.”
In one instance, my friend Bart asked if I was still interested in beta reading his novel. I replied that yes, I still am, “But I’m beta reading someone else’s novel right now. I’ll message you when I’m done!” I state this time limitation because I know that I take a long time to beta read one person’s novel. I would be even slower and more distracted, not to mention stressed, if I were to beta read two people’s books at once. It’s important to know your limits, and to be honest with people about what you realistically can or cannot do.
In addition, I would ask for a specific deadline. I would tell them that I will work as fast as I can; there are no guarantees that I’ll meet the deadline, but I’ll try my best. That way, I can set clear expectations for both me and the other person.
Yes, I get that it can be useful for someone to learn about their personality tendencies, since we don’t always know what impact we’re making on others. Yet, it can be hard to hear a personality or general behavioural criticism; the other person could get defensive, rebel against you by deliberately doing what you don’t like, or it could throw a bomb on your relationship with them, even if just temporarily.
Furthermore, there are situations where it would be wise to not directly confront the person, for example, if they are an authority figure who has some power over you, such as your boss, professor, or supervisor.
At my counselling practicum placement, I often disagreed with my supervisor on how to help my clients, and I was frustrated with some of his general attitudes. This is not because he was a bad person or even a poor supervisor, but simply because we differed in some of our personal philosophies. My supervisor was overall a pleasant and helpful person, but he was the one who would write my evaluation, after all, so I couldn’t directly critique what I didn’t like. Instead, I was much more oblique, where I expressed disagreement on specific client cases and situations, but I disagreed in a way that was as diplomatic and polite as possible.
For example, instead of saying that I thought his general approach was too limited and not helpful for many clients, I would say that client X is not benefiting from this approach, unfortunately, but I’ve been finding that this other approach has been working for them.
I figured that my supervisor would think me an arrogant upstart, as I’m just a student, while he has decades of experience in this field. Who am I to challenge his authority and expertise? Indeed, I found that even with this more oblique approach, my supervisor was getting a bit defensive, as seen in his questions to me, his comments, tone of voice, and even body language, which made me feel discouraged and annoyed.
My solution was to make my disagreements sound like agreements, to make it seem like we were on the same side—not that I wanted to fight or antagonize my supervisor in the first place. What I did was multi-fold: 1) I emphasized the points (even the minor ones) where we did agree; 2) I praised the effectiveness of his approach in some other client cases; 3) I softened my tone of voice and facial expression, to look friendlier and more accommodating rather than too eager and passionate about making my points.
After doing the above, my supervisor softened in his stance as well: his words and tone of voice grew gentler, he was more willing to acknowledge the value of my approach, and his body language became warmer and more open again, rather than stiff and closed off like it was earlier.
Just to clarify, though, I do agree with some of my supervisor’s ideas. Also, I still like him as a person. But we can still disagree with someone we like.
When I got into grad school, one of the first things I did was to seek out student LGBTQ+ organizations. I soon learned of an event where a bunch of queer and trans groups would gather. At the event, I happily went to all of the booths, and signed up for as many clubs as I could. One of the groups I joined, was an organization for Asian LGBTQ+ folks, which I thought was pretty unique—I’m Chinese, gay, and transgender.
Later, I joined a workshop/ support group series at the Asian LGBTQ+ organization. During one of the meetings, I was chatting with two of the facilitators, Dustin and Clara. We talked about school, and Dustin expressed his admiration that I was in grad school for counselling psychology already, as he was still doing his undergrad in psych. I said, “Don’t worry. You’ll get there soon.”
Dustin replied in a joking tone, “Sieran’s like: Ooh, I’m so cool, I’m already in grad school.”
As clueless as I was, even I could tell that I had made a misstep. I apologized, saying that I hadn’t meant to sound condescending, but since I was older than him, it was just a matter of time that he could go to grad school too.
Clara laughed and explained that Dustin is actually older than me.
What a moment of embarrassment! I had assumed, just because I found the organization from a student event, that this was run by students, who are mostly likely in their undergrad. But I only just realized that this is a community organization, and the facilitators were all a bit older than me…So I apologized profusely, and was forgiven.
Here, I must point out that at the time, I was too ignorant about the world, and was only thinking about the traditional path, of being an undergraduate from the age of 18 to your early 20s. I was aware of mature students, but I thought of a mature student as someone in their 50s to 70s, not one in their late 20s. I am very glad that I’m not so ignorant in this regard anymore.
Nevertheless, by expressing his upset in a joking way, Dustin successfully conveyed his feelings without making it too awkward; and because of his tact, even my embarrassment was reduced to a minimum.
At my practicum placement, one of the therapists, Jane, planned to start an anger management support group on Thursdays, 4 pm. Another therapist, David, and I, both have clients at that time. So the service coordinator, Larry, contacted David and me about this. The support group was a closed one, so the centre had to be reserved for Jane and her group members. David told me that he was unsure if his client could make it at a different time. Larry explained that this was the time slot that Jane had requested, since she has a very busy schedule. Although my own client happened to be flexible in his schedule, I worried not just for David’s client, but also for other therapists at the centre in general. There was limited room at the centre already, so if even the 4 pm slot for Thursday was taken, we would not have many time slots left.
Jane and I were on friendly terms, so I emailed her:
Hope all is well!
Larry told us that for the anger management support group, you would like to use the 4 pm slot on Thursday. But would it be possible for you to take the 5 pm slot instead? My 4 pm client will probably be able to switch to another time, but David said he’s not sure if his client is able to do a different time! It would also be good to leave the 4-5 pm slot open, since there is limited space for counselling, so the more time slots available for therapists to use, the better. ^_^”
Fortunately, Jane agreed to shift her group start time to 5 pm instead. Thus, all we needed to do was to speak up, and explain the reason behind our request in a polite way. The ability to speak up is especially important as sometimes, the other person does not realize that their decision will cause a problem on your end. In my experience, most people are reasonable and sympathetic, and are willing to accommodate your needs as much as they can.
The last tip in this post is the make-up: Someone feels that they’ve hurt or offended you, even if they’ve tried their best to be tactful, and so they do something to make-up for it, to restore the positive feelings between you two.
At a practicum placement, I, like some of the other students, didn’t bother to bring my laptop, and would type my clinical notes on the one and only computer in the student room instead. Most of my classmates were understanding and indulgent of this, so we would take turns using this computer, even though the computer was mainly for client intakes.
However, one of my classmates, Jerry, who wasn’t my friend yet, said in a gentle tone of voice that we need the computer for intake work, so it wasn’t that great for me to use the computer for my own notes.
Even though he said it gently, I still felt offended and annoyed, despite knowing that he was right. I was grumpy inside, but I went downstairs to borrow a laptop from the library. When I came back upstairs and took out the laptop, Jerry and some other students were still in the room. Jerry came over and asked what brand this laptop was, and said he was thinking of getting a new laptop as well. We chatted for a while, and this pleasant, relaxing conversation made me feel much better about Jerry and my earlier embarrassment.
Even after Jerry and I became friends (he was one of my closest friends at the placement), Jerry had a way where he could raise dissenting opinions, never in a mean way. But after the awkwardness, he would always say or do something to restore the positivity in our relationship.
Aside from Jerry, I noticed some other friends who would become extra warm and kind to me after an unpleasant interaction, so they were engaging in a sort of relationship repair. This “make-up” is a beneficial strategy, because no matter how polite and gentle you are in conveying something to the other person, it may still make them uncomfortable or unhappy. So it’s worthwhile to make positive interactions with them afterwards, e.g. chatting about something you are both interested in, or suggesting an activity you both enjoy. This make-up sends a message to the other person that you value the relationship and care about their feelings.
And there you have it. Twelve tips for speaking up about hard things without offending the other person or hurting their feelings, or at least, reducing the hurt and awkwardness as much as you can. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, nor would all of these tips work in every situation with every person. So ultimately, it’s up to you to judge what tips and approaches to apply in your specific scenario. Your relationship with the person matters too. The strategies you use to talk to friends, may be different from the strategies you would use to speak with your parents, children, teachers, students, classmates, customers, clients, your boss, and other people in your life. Your particular relationship with the person is important to think about too: a classmate you are virtually friends with, is different from a classmate you rarely speak to, and your methods of diplomacy might change accordingly.
How about you? Do you have any tips to add on the art of diplomacy? Do you disagree with any of these tips, or have any suggestions to improve on them? What do you think about the view that speaking tactfully is being inauthentic or dishonest?
N.B. Please note again that all the names used in this blog post, are pseudonyms to protect the identity of these individuals.