Effective communication, especially listening, is something everybody knows is important. Amazing how ‘everybody’ doesn’t do it. This series of articles is about the obvious; so obviously, you should read it.

In organizational settings, for psychologically healthy people, there is a natural tension between the need to be liked while at the same time achieve other goals. The fear of disapproval causes us to behave or communicate in a guarded, careful, awkward or even deceptive manner, but usually in socially ‘correct’ ways. Avoiding these pitfalls is the art of communicating with tact and diplomacy.

Human beings are social animals and need interaction with other people to thrive. Paradoxically we also feel potentially threatened in some psychological sense whenever we have an encounter with others. Why? human beings have a deep psychological need to be liked and accepted yet every interpersonal interaction and communication involves

[emotional] risk, this threat to self-esteem. (Yes, even Extroverts can feel ill at ease when it comes to approval needs.) To minimize this risk people have a natural tendency to gather with other like-minded individuals for survival, support and strength in numbers; this is ingrained in our DNA – that’s why we surround ourselves with friends and colleagues – our social network. As social beings, we are most comfortable around people we know, like and trust. Even in familiar surroundings though, every encounter raises doubt, especially with new or unfamiliar people. We all have a comfort zone of relationships, wherein those close to us generally accept us for who we are and forgive us for our occasional social transgressions.

In interacting with others, especially people we perceive as having power, we adopt a number of different strategies to preserve self-esteem; in general the [subconscious] strategy is either one of subordination (giving in to preserve the relationship) or of dominance (getting our own way regardless of the damage to the relationship). In reality, the choice of strategy may be situational, but for long term successful interpersonal engagement these strategies must include a generous application of the art of tact and diplomacy.

We usually learn these skills through socialization, as youngsters, as adolescents, and as young adults upon entering the world of work. I’m not sure about old dogs…

Some people never really learn the art of social correctness; or they may feel so ‘passionate’ or ‘rational’ or ‘determined’ about the point of discussion that they forget the social consideration skills they had learned. Instead they come across in a manner that the other, also concerned for his own self-esteem, perceives as hostile, aggressive or otherwise threatening or socially unacceptable. The other party may in turn adopt a defensive or offensive posture in response. Some Machiavellian personalities, once confronted by a socially awkward other, may even turn the negative encounter against him or otherwise act to undermine his/or her reputation. This is gossip as a social regulator.

The honest, direct and forthright person, less sensitive to the intricacies of the social ‘game’, may come to think of the game itself as shallow, false and even ‘dishonest’.

Such is the nature of the social world we live in. And to survive and thrive in it, we must learn to play it, well. This is the art of tact and diplomacy.

It is no loss to our own principles and sense of integrity to practice the art of tact and diplomacy; we can assert ourselves, state our case, ‘speak truth to power’, but do so while balancing honesty with politeness.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas further AFS Consulting has a program for you delivered in one-on-one coaching modality: Mastering the Art of Tact and Diplomacy. Check it out here: https://afsconsulting.ca/Coaching/Counseling/Communicate-Tact-Diplomacy/