Tactfully Speaking: 5 Steps To A Meaningful Conversation

Several months back I had a painful conversation with someone for about ten minutes. I knew this man could tend to be abrasive in his speech and personality, so I braced myself emotionally before we started chatting. Despite my greatest efforts, I left the conversation defensive and frustrated. Over the years I know people have talked to him about how he comes across. Yet there we were and I was still having to emotionally recover after just a brief interaction.

Admittedly, that is a drastic example of someone who has little to no tact; but it takes only ONE sentence to put others on the defensive and end the potential for a meaningful connect.

The word ‘tactful’ can be defined as “having or showing a sense of what is fitting and considerate in dealing with others”. Here is what I’ve discovered about tactfulness. It is a godly trait than can be learned. Scriptures exhort us to be careful in our speech over and over again. Here are just a few examples:

  • A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1
  • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Ephesians 4:29
  • Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6
So in the next few posts I’d like to lay out a few pointers I’ve learned about speaking tactfully. This list isn’t all inclusive, but it certainly is a great place to start. I’ll start with five important parts of a meaningful conversation.
5 Steps To A Meaningful Conversation
  • Listen.
    OK. So that’s not officially a way to talk, but it certainly is an important step in setting the foundation for when you do {talk}. Focus on what the other person is saying and stop your brain from coming up with the reasons why they are wrong or what you will say next.
  • Clarify.
    A tactful response is an informed response. According to Proverbs 29:20, only a fool spouts what he thinks before fully understanding what is at stake. Take the time to understand what’s being said BEFORE you share your own thoughts, ideas, or opinions. Here are two ways you can effectively clarify: (1)Ask clarifying questions. (2)Repeat back what was said in your own words.
  • Think.
    That seems obvious. It’s not. Too often we speak before we think. I have fallen into this trap more times than I can remember. Take the time to think through (a.)what has been said, (b.)what you think, and (c.)what you will say before you open your mouth to talk. Better an awkward silence than the alternative! 
  • Speak.
    Finally, you can have your say and speak your mind. But remember to be tactful in what you say and how you say it. I will talk more about how to be tactful in your response in my next post.
  • Ask.
    And you thought you were finished after saying what you think! Nope. Your final step is to ask a question. This is very important and is your ‘best friend’ in the whole process. By asking the right questions you can ensure that your listener(s) are also following the same process as you. In particular, they are listening, clarifying, and thinking. Here are a couple of examples of questions you can ask:

“Does what I am saying make sense to you?”



“What do you think?”

“Could you repeat back to me what you heard me say? I’m not sure I communicated it well or not.”

Image from SensorSpot on istockphoto.com

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  • Colin Gautrey May 24, 2012  

    Good advice. I’d like to add another thought. Tactfulness is about avoiding creating offence. If you think in these terms, how can I say what needs to be said without offending the individual? it may give you further ideas on how you can do it tactfully. It is also important to remember that different people are offended by different things, so adapting your delivery to suit the individual is also key. Of course, this is where your ideas of listening above really come into their own!

    • Wayne Hedlund June 15, 2012  

      Very true. Obviously, sometimes offense just can’t be avoided, but certainly we can minimize the possibilities if we just use some forethought before we speak! Thanks for commenting.

  • omega76 August 8, 2013  

    I am painfully tactless and I have no idea how t talk to people!

    • Wayne Hedlund August 10, 2013  

      Been there, done that. I’m still growing and learning. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can grow in this area!

  • okbalager September 28, 2013  

    If you want to learn to speak tactfully. find me on Skype

  • Trying2Hard February 14, 2014  

    That man you spoke about in the 1st paragraph, is my husband. How do I tactfully tell him that he needs to learn how to communicate with people without offending them? I have been telling him for years to be more careful with his words and facial expressions when talking with people – particularly when he’s frustrated. He doesn’t even need to say a word. His facial expressions and reactions are loud-and-clear!

    We have been married 13 years, he has gone through 12 jobs and just started a new position on Monday. He is a very sensitive caring man, but does not know how to appropriately communicate, which has alienated all of his coworkers, employers, most of his family AND mine, friends and church family as well.

    He projects a GREAT 1st impression. Handsome, funny, intelligent, caring. . but then after a while, his abrasiveness takes over and people are turned off and he doesn’t understand why. He is extremely sensitive when you tell him he has done or said something wrong and reacts very strongly to it. I don’t know what else to do. My friends can’t stand him and don’t want to be around him (well, the one friend I have left). I finally got him to admit he had a problem and to seek counseling, but now he is putting that off and saying he is just praying about it. Is there an online class he can take to learn tact? Any material I can hand him?

    • Wayne Hedlund February 14, 2014  

      First of all, I’d like to encourage you (and perhaps your husband) to check out my other posts in this series at: http://www.transformingleader.org/tactfully-speaking-taming-the-tongue/. I’d also recommend the following posts: http://www.transformingleader.org/johari-window-for-the-christian-leader/, http://www.transformingleader.org/tactical-tip-teach-yourself-to-smile/.

      Secondly, it might be helpful for him to read a couple of books (or listen to them if he doesn’t enjoy reading) on communication. In particular, I recommend Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.

      Thirdly, if I were counselling your husband I would encourage him to begin focusing on self-awareness. The fact that he doesn’t understand why people are turned off is a big red flag. It’s difficult work to become self-aware, because it requires a lot of self-evaluation and getting honest feedback from others that can be quite painful. But if he can find a way to humbly ask others for their help, maybe by asking questions like, “How approachable am I?”, “What is one area in my life you think I should consider improving?”, “How difficult do you think it is for people to talk to me honestly?”, etc. The difficulty with those questions is that he needs to be focused on listening rather than defending. He needs to understand how people perceive him.

      That brings me to my final suggestion. That is that he should pursue counselling. Getting help from a professional should not be seen as a failure. It should be viewed as healthy living. I go to the dentist because I don’t have the expertise to diagnose and treat my sore tooth. Going to get help isn’t bad, it’s healthy. The same is true for counselling. Most of us are not trained to delve into our emotional psyche to figure out why we are oversensitive or easily angered. We need help for that. I’ve been to many counselors over the years and I almost always come away a better person for it. I suspect there is some hurt, unforgiveness or some other issue that has become a barrier in his relational IQ.

      I pray you and he can battle through this difficulty all the way to the end. I suspect if you do, you will discover a peace in your own marriage and relationships that will be very refreshing . . . for both of you.



  • Wayne Hedlund April 28, 2014  

    Thanks for your comment Linda. One of the challenges of being a teacher (I’m talking about me, not your example) is that we have a tendency to simplify things in such a way that we’re surprised when things are complex. I’ve expressed some principles that work here and in some other posts – but working them out is still messy.

    Part of being tactful is in remembering to not respond defensively. Many of our ‘tactless’ comments are made when we are emotional. Better to say nothing than to say something out of defense when we haven’t had time to think and process what we are going to say first.

    That said, in your example, I would probably have responded with something like, “I understand that you just explained it. And I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but I still don’t get it. Can I ask a few questions to help me understand better or perhaps talk with you about it more after class?”

    You might want to consider looking up my series on this blog about confrontation as well. That may be a help to you if you’re dealing with someone who you struggle talking to because of their approach to communication.

    Have a great day.