The words we speak and how we deliver them can greatly influence how others perceive our message. It’s important to carefully consider our words to ensure that the messages we want to convey come across as clearly as possible. In life, both professional and personal, we communicate with a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds, with different views and communication styles. We also communicate in a variety of settings – including ones that are stressful or tense. Navigating challenging conversations becomes much easier when we learn basic tenants of diplomatic communication.
What is Diplomatic Communication?
A diplomatic communicator is someone who can get their message across and convince people to change without damaging the relationship. Diplomatic communicators use reason, kindness and compassion, and they show respect for other people.
Diplomatic communication (or tact) is about being honest, but not brutally honest. Tact and diplomacy are skills centered around an understanding of other people and being sensitive to their opinions, beliefs, ideas and feelings. Tactful communicators can sense what another person is feeling or thinking and respond in such a way as to avoid bad feelings or awkwardness, while at the same time asserting or reflecting their own ideas and feelings back in a delicate and well-meaning fashion.
All people and all communication situations are unique. Developing effective tact and diplomacy skills requires practice and good judgment. Outlined below are a few basic tenants of diplomatic communication to help you develop or strengthen your skills.
Learn to Modify Your Communication Style
Different people communicate differently. I’ve found that many people make the mistake of thinking that their own behavioral communication style is the best (or only) way to communicate effectively. To communicate with tact, we must ditch that belief.
Rather than making value statements about someone else’s communication style, we should learn how to accommodate it. For example, if you are providing information to a “dominant” or “aggressive” communicator, it’s important to get right down to business and stay on topic. Likewise, if you’re providing information to a “conscientious” or “passive” communicator, you might approach them more casually and give them time to think through the information before requesting a response.
Paying attention to the communication styles of those around us and modifying our behavior accordingly will ultimately help us achieve better results.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Like I mentioned previously, our choice of words can influence how others perceive our message.
Avoid starting sentences with the word “you,” because it inherently sounds like an accusation and puts people on the defensive. Rather than saying, “You need to use more research in your presentation,” consider saying, “Next time, I think your presentation would be stronger if you included more research.” Indirect communication might feel counterintuitive and like we’re skirting around an issue, but it helps protect the other person from feeling like they’re being criticized or demeaned.
Another good way to avoid the other person feeling defensive is by using “I” statements. “I” statements demonstrate ownership of our feelings instead of placing blame. In practice, this might sound like, “I see what you mean, but I had trouble understanding your message when I read it the first time.”
Diplomatic communicators think, re-think and then think some more about the words they choose to communicate their ideas.
Slow Down & Speak Concisely
One of my favorite character tropes in movies and TV is the person that keeps rambling when they’re nervous or under pressure (perhaps it’s because I relate to the tendency). It’s tempting to keep talking when we feel uncomfortable or when we feel passionate about the topic. However, this increases the chance that we’ll say too much or say something we’ll regret.
A best practice is to take a deep breath. With a clear head, it’s easier to be honest and assertive and only say what we need to.
Listen to Understand
Too often when we communicate, we are thinking of our response or our agenda. However, this rarely contributes to a fruitful discussion. A tactful and diplomatic communicator is one who exhibits all the traits of an active listener. An active listener uses verbal and nonverbal cues to signal to the speaker that they are paying attention.
For example, an active listener will make eye contact, sit up straight or lean toward the speaker, mirror the speaker’s facial expressions and avoid distractions. An active listener will also ask clarifying questions, summarize what the speaker said and/or pepper in interjects like “mhm.” Each of these practices shows the person you’re talking with that your only agenda is understanding what they’re trying to say, rather than trying to push your own views. Listening shows the other person that they can trust you.
Diplomatic communicators also fight the urge to interrupt and they consciously choose if, when and how to disagree.
What we actually say when we communicate begins long before we open our mouths and continues after we’ve finished speaking. Our faces are extremely expressive, and we can communicate countless emotions without saying a word. Our faces – both voluntarily and involuntarily – convey emotion and some of it is hard to hide.
Involuntary messaging often becomes an obstacle to our intended message and can even at times be in conflict with our spoken word. Relaxing our faces can make a big difference in our conversations. We might think we’re conveying an open mind, when really our eyebrows are furrowed, or our lips are pursed. We might even have our arms crossed!
Being a diplomatic communicator means you can appear relaxed even when you may not be. For those of us that have expressive faces, we’ll need to practice maintaining eye contact with a neutral but pleasant facial expression (i.e., eyebrows slightly raised, and lips parted). Remember to relax any parts of the body that can become tense during difficult discussions.
Becoming a diplomatic communicator will not happen overnight but consistent practice will pay off in the long run. I recommend choosing one of these basic tenants and mastering it before moving on to the next. And remember, one non-tactful conversation will not ruin the progress you’ve made.
After each conversation, ask yourself: