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Tact: The art of selecting words carefully, delicately and in a way not to offend or alienate others. Tact is a sense of what to do or say to maintain good relationships with others. Tact is the opposite of "foot in mouth disease."

Tact: The Foundation of Effective Communication

by Michele Novotni, Ph.D.

I must say that one of the most tactful article rejections I ever received came from ADDitude’s editors, Ellen Kingsley and Pat Wycliff. Rather than say they didn’t like what I had written, they suggested that the emphasis was not quite what they were looking for. Would I be willing to go a different way? Even more tactful, they began their rejection by telling me how much they appreciated all my contributions to ADDitude over the years and how much they generally love what I write.

Very tactful!

Tact is sometimes in short supply for those who are inattentive or impulsive — qualities not limited to those with AD/HD. Errors in tact can be avoided by:

Choosing Words Carefully

If someone asks you for an opinion about how they look, for goodness sake don’t respond by saying, “You don’t look so fat in that outfit,” as one of my clients once did. The same thought can be conveyed through a variety of words, such as “I love it, but I still think black is a more slimming color for you.”

The impact of words varies based on the tactfulness of your choice.

Tact Deficient: “I totally disagree.”

Tact: “I’m having a difficult time grasping what you mean. Help me better understand your thinking on this matter.”

Focus On the Positive

Focus on positive aspects in conversations. Look for responses that indicate a half-full glass worldview rather than a half empty glass. A positive perspective on things makes a difference in relationships. Research has shown that people like to be with people who are positive rather than critical.

Avoid All or Nothing Thinking

Many folks make the mistake of seeing the world in only two camps — right or wrong, good or bad. This worldview creates serious social problems since it does not allow for differences of opinion, a spectrum of ideas and diverse thoughts. Some people will throw away an apple if it has a bruise, others will cut away the bruise and use the rest of the apple. I am suggesting that you consider what is good about what someone has just said and be open to thoughts that differ from yours. Take a rainbow view of the world, realizing that there are a number of colors and blends in colors.

Say Less

Tact requires that you say what you need to say and not much more. For example, “Hi! How are you doing?” Really just means “Hi.” An extended answer about how you are really doing is considered socially inappropriate. If someone really wants to know, they will ask again. Also be careful not to say too much to people you just met on airplanes or at restaurants. And be careful not to bring up too many personal issues at work. People appreciate healthy boundaries.

Hot Potatoes

Tact requires avoiding topics such as money, religion and politics except with people you know extremely well. Such topics need to be approached with the utmost of care and with sensitivity to the differences that are often strongly felt regarding these topics. Statements like “It’s definitely…” or, “Any idiot knows that…” are guaranteed to offend. To be socially safe and tactful, avoid “hot potato” topics whenever possible.

Observe Body Language Cues

Watch other people’s body language (or changes in their voice) to indicate pleasure or displeasure with your comments. Both can be very accurate tact gauges. When people start looking away from you, tap their feet, or provide monosyllabic answers, take those cues as a sign that it’s time to stop talking, change the subject, or excuse yourself.

Michele Novotni, Ph.D., is a psychologist and coach in private practice in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

This article is published by permission from ADDitude Magazine ©2004. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited.

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