Social Communication 101: Tact and Gentleness

In the second in our series discussing social behavior, we examine the need for both tact and gentleness when communicating with others.

Social Communication 101: Tact and Gentleness
Have you ever felt like someone said something to you in the absolute worst way at the absolute worst time? You’re not alone. We have all been the victims of tactlessness!

Let’s consider the example of gaining weight:

1. You’re a woman who has gained some weight, much to your disappointment and frustration; and a friendly person who wants to make conversation asks, “So, when is your baby due?”

2. You’re a man who has gained some weight, much to your disappointment and frustration; and another friendly person who wants to make conversation bluntly says, “You have put on a few pounds, eh?”

Comments such as these gave rise to the cliché foot-in-mouth syndrome. We all have said or heard such comments. Many people don’t even realize they are being rude or lacking gentleness when they communicate. We may not even recognize it in ourselves!

What are tact and gentleness?

Tact can be defined in many ways, but a summary statement can be as simple as this: Tact is wisdom. When communicating with another person, we should always strive to use great care and wisdom in what we say, how we say it and even in deciding whether to say anything at all.

Gentleness, a fruit of God’s Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23, is directly linked to this. Sometimes truth that hurts deeply has to be told, but gentleness is what makes the difference in these situations. How would you rather hear this specific truth delivered to you?

Option A: “You are a slob! You always leave your junk everywhere and never clean up!”

Option B: “It bothers me how messy the house seems to get. Please help me keep it cleaned up.”

The same point gets across: Keep the house clean and tidy. But Option B doesn’t involve insults or “always” and “never” statements. Tact and gentleness in communication keep relationships healthy and mutually respectful.

To learn more about the potential destructive power of words, read “Sticks and Stones: 6 Ways to Improve Your Words.”

Perspective taking

Consider three scriptures that should change your perspective on how we communicate with others.

  • Proverbs 13:3: “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction.” When tactless or harsh wording of sensitive or personal issues escapes from our mouths, people notice. They may choose not to share personal concerns with us in the future and feel justly defensive.
  • Ephesians 4:15: “But, speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ.” The truth spoken in love is a very powerful thing. Without love, however, the truth can damage instead of heal, making people feel hated. The sincerity of the truth gets lost when there is a lack of love in speech. Speaking from the motivation of love guides us into deciding what should be said and what should be avoided.
  • Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” The phrase He doesn’t have a filter, didn’t originate in a vacuum. It is a negative phrase associated with someone who seems to have a habit of ignoring gentleness and tact in his communication. This is not a reputation Christians want to have.

When communicating with another person, we should always use great care and wisdom in what we say, how we say it and even in deciding whether to say anything at all.What should we do?

If we are noticing this as a problem in our communication, what can we do?

Here are three questions we can ask ourselves to bring change to this area of our lives:

1. Does our speech edify those we are speaking to?

In other words, are we building up, encouraging and helping this person? Or are we tearing down or using our speech to gratify ourselves? Think for a moment. When is it ever helpful to say, “You have gained weight”? When are insults ever considered tactful and gentle? Apply the old adage: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It has insightful wisdom that can transform our speech.

This doesn’t mean we should never say anything negative or offer constructive criticism, but it does mean that we should seriously consider whether our speech is helpful or harmful before we say anything.

2. Are we trying to avoid offense if at all possible?

Offenses will come; there is no denying that. In fact, the Bible encourages us not to be easily offended, because we all do the offending sometimes (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22). However, the Bible also strongly warns us to avoid offending (Matthew 18:7).

Are we trying hard to avoid offending others? This is an area where pride often gets in the way of human relationships. We might be tempted to think: “I should be able to say whatever I want, however I want. It’s a free country.” But if we are striving to be better Christians, then, no, we shouldn’t.

3. Do we value the concept of tact and gentleness?

We ask this question of ourselves because our society influences Christians not to value tact or gentleness. We might hear some selectively chosen politically correct dos and don’ts, but overall the problem remains. Rage and outbursts of wrath are often glorified. Politicians who get angry and say tactless and harsh things get more media coverage and can receive higher poll numbers. Despite all the influences around us, Christians must highly value and strive to practice tact and gentleness.

Communication is such a constant part of our daily lives that it can be hard to monitor everything we say. Even though it can be difficult, we are expected to try our best to demonstrate this in our lives. Tact and gentleness in our communication are important keys to good relationships. 

For further insight into this aspect of communication, read “Speak the Truth in Love.”

About the Author

Eddie and Shannon Foster

Eddie and Shannon Foster

Eddie (a school speech-language pathologist) and Shannon (a school counselor) Foster are members of the Cincinnati/Dayton, Ohio, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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