Tactfully Speaking: According to the Bible


I’ve heard it said that tactful speech is simply a way to coddle the weak and help them control the strong. Ouch. That hurts. If this were true then I suppose everyone has general permission to be blunt, rude, or insensitive to others. I don’t think so. I think this viewpoint may have more to do with people’s unwillingness to swallow their pride OR with the occasional situation when people attempt to control others by playing the “I’m not listening because you’re so disrespectful.” card. In fact, tactlessness isn’t something that is reserved just for the outgoing, talkative, and/or brutally honest. The quiet and reserved individual is just as prone to say something insensitive.

When the rubber meets the road, it’s just complicated. You can’t etch a lot of rules in stone and call that tactful speech. Each situation, relational dynamic and personality will play a big role in what people say and how they say it. Context is huge. History is important. Venue makes a big difference. It’s a lost cause to try and put all of these scenario’s in a box.

So how can we learn to speak tactfully? Thankfully, I think there are many principles and rules of thumb which, when learned and put into practice will help us save face. I’ve already shared one important element of tactful speech in this post. Another tactic for tactful speech is to get in the habit of filtering your comments through Scripture. As mentioned in the aforementioned post, there are many Scriptures that exhort us to be wise with our words. One of my favorites is:

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

This passage makes a few important assumptions. Let’s look at them:

  • Assumption #1: You can choose to guard what you say.
    I guess this means the old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it.” can sometimes be true. Maybe we could change the word ‘nice’ to ‘beneficial’?
  • Assumption #2: It’s possible to filter your speech to ONLY.
    It’s a high calling to ONLY speak when you know what’s coming out of your mouth is going to ‘bless’ or ‘help’ others.
  • Assumption #3: You can know what will be ‘helpful for building others up’.
    There’s only one way I can think of to accomplish this – stop thinking of ourselves over those we are with. A good dose of Philippians 2 should keep us on track.
  • Assumption #4: You can speak things based on what you know about their individual needs.
    There is an intentionality in this assumption that is daunting. If I want to say something that will build others up I first need to understand them first. Our words should be an overflow of a caring and growing relationship. 
  • Assumption #5: What you say can benefit the person listening.
    This strikes me as a challenge and a promise. Keep your speech ‘other-centered’ and you may just discover God working through you more than you realize.
In a nutshell, tactful speech is ‘other-centered’ rather than ‘self-centered’.

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