| Family First Feature |

Tactfully Speaking

Tact is crucial in all interpersonal relationships. How to train children to interact with tact

How often has your child made a comment that made you cringe?

Speaking tactfully, and knowing when to say something and when to stay silent, can be a challenge, especially for kids. Your seven-year-old daughter may not understand why it’s a show of affection for an adult to tell her, “You’re getting so big!” but insulting if she responds, “You too.”

Tact requires an understanding of the situation, and the ability to see the situation from someone else’s perspective. It means putting oneself into the others person’s shoes, to get a sense of what they might be thinking. It demands the realization that “your position is different from mine.” Being tactful requires thinking about what’s going on at that moment and also reflecting upon it.

“That’s a lot to process all at once,” says Judith Weisz, a Jerusalem-based pediatric speech-and-language therapist. “It requires a huge amount of understanding and awareness for a child to know the difference between what adults say to her and what she can say to them. You can’t even ask a child, ‘How would you like it if someone said that to you?’ because they might feel fine about it,” continues Judith.

Learning the Ropes

She suggests ways we can teach the skill of tactful communication to our kids.

“The first step to learning a new skill is to recognize there’s a problem with the old way of doing things,” she says. “Subtle communication issues are hard for a child to recognize. If they don’t see the problem, it’s difficult to motivate them to work on it.”

The first step is to have the child realize that he could benefit from some training. That requires finding the place where he himself would welcome help. “A mother once described many of the social issues that her daughter was facing,” says Judith. “But when I sat down with her daughter, she was hard-pressed to find anything she needed help with. After some discussion, she mentioned that it’s hard for her to judge when a WhatsApp conversation is over.” That realization was enough to get them started.

What makes a problem as subtle as a lack of tact especially difficult to teach is that children may not read the cues that show they’re making other people uncomfortable. This cluelessness keeps the child from understanding the impact of what he says, or learning for the future.

To show why tact is a good thing, Judith uses Carol Gray’s Comic Strip Conversations, blank cartoon strips of stick figures with speech and thought bubbles. “It’s easy to use them to show that what we think and what we say are, and should be, different,” explains Judith. “It also clearly shows them that what people say and what they think aren’t always the same.

“A stick figure’s speech bubble might say, ‘I’m glad to see you!’ but his thought bubble might show that he’s thinking, ‘He makes me uncomfortable,’ or ‘He always talks, but he never listens to me.’ That’s information that a child might not have, and it’s a kind way of showing him that his communication style makes others want to keep their distance.”

Judith explains that it’s important to create bridges between what you teach children and what happens in their real life. Effective teaching draws on situations the child has encountered. Discussing a conflict she’s experienced makes a good bridge into the conversation about speaking tactfully. A bridge out helps her transfer her awareness into her day-to-day life. Without that, what you’ve taught her may remain just a theoretical concept that she doesn’t know how to use. “Making it real — creating the bridge out — as soon as possible is vital with such a nuanced topic as tact,” Judith says.

To help bring the elements of tact into real time, Judith models how to use it, showing the child how to take another person’s needs into account. “They may choose a game and assume that I’m fine with playing it, too. I might ask, ‘Do you want to check if I also want to play that?’ This helps them begin to take other people’s opinions, needs, and thoughts into consideration.”

Evaluate and Anticipate

Evaluating a conversation after it’s happened, and thinking about how a better outcome could have been achieved, is a good parenting move. So is anticipating and planning for future conversations. The aim is increased awareness, and then using that awareness in real time.

“If a child acts out in school because he’s bored, we might practice the conversation he’ll have with the teacher next time he gets antsy,” Judith suggests. “Practicing a conversation can help him avoid telling the teacher, ‘You’re boring,’ and express himself in a more acceptable way.”

Judith adds that preplanning and post-mortem-evaluations help for any behavioral change. In-the-moment is always the hardest time to deal with an impulse.

Another way for parents to provide helpful feedback is to reflect their honest thoughts kindly, for example, saying, “I’m a bit confused. Does that have something to do with what we were talking about?” Or, “You asked that question so sensitively; it made me feel very comfortable.” This allows their children to see the impact their words have on other people.

Children with low-grade special needs may often blur things out or interrupt others when talking. One way to guide them is to suggest that when the other person is talking, they smile and keep their hands together — this will help them restrain themselves from interrupting. Teach them to limit their contribution to the conversation to nodding and saying, “I hear you.” They can be advised not to go into a conversation with a solution or an answer, unless someone asks them for one; they should just go into it as a listener.

For those who tend to dominate conversations, a pearl of wisdom: Let other people talk more than you do, and keep your part of the conversation short. Think about having a green light for the first 30 seconds that you talk, then a yellow light for the next 30 seconds. After that, it’s red, unless you’re a fascinating storyteller.

Become a Pillar

Social friction and hurt feelings are prominent features of the tween and teen years. Conflict is unavoidable, but it can spur growth, especially when parents take the social turmoil in stride and coach their kids on how to resolve things on their own.

A good way to help kids this age get a handle on healthy conflict, says Rabbi Shlomo Kory, who counsels young adults who want to improve their communication skills, is by describing three unhealthy strategies: the bulldozer, the doormat, and the doormat with spikes. The bulldozer simply runs over others, while the doormat allows himself to be run over. The doormat with spikes is passive-aggressive, seemingly complacent about letting others have their way, but making them pay the price.

Teens can be encouraged to conjure up a scenario and think about how a person would respond to an insult or irritation using each of these strategies. Then their parent can describe another possibility: being a pillar, that is, standing up for oneself while not infringing on others.

When a conflict occurs in real life, a not-yet-completely-civilized tween or teen can find welcome pain relief in imagining her unhealthy response. A chance to fantasize about the short-term gratification of an unacceptable response is often all it takes to clear the air. Then it’s easier to see the superiority of the pillar response.

Three Views

Another technique Rabbi Kory uses to teach tactful communication is to ask his clients to view their interactions from three points of view — their own, the person they’re speaking to, and an uninvolved observer.

Let’s say 15-year-old Shira finds out she was the only one of her group of friends who wasn’t invited to an afternoon at the bowling alley. Her immediate response might be to yell at Tamar, who organized the outing, and say, “You’re so mean! Why are you going without me?”

This isn’t likely to improve her popularity. Tamar will hear, “You’re mean!” If Tamar is embarrassed by her behavior, she’ll avoid Shira in the future. If she had a good reason for not inviting her — maybe there wasn’t enough room in her mother’s car for another person — she may feel overwhelmed by Shira’s intense response, and be less likely to explain the slight.

The uninvolved observer will hear, “She’s upset and taking it out on Tamar.” As an outsider with no emotional investment in the exchange, it’ll be easy for the observer to see that Shira isn’t giving Tamar a chance to explain herself or save face. That’s not going to make Tamar like her or want to include her next time she plans a fun outing.

With those three perspectives in mind, Shira can refine her side of the conversation. She’ll be able to see that her immediate impulse isn’t the best one — it doesn’t help her get what she wants and may even make it impossible for her to get what she wants in the future. Instead of going on the attack, she might conclude that a better approach would be to ask for information and subtly convey her disappointment by saying calmly and in a friendly tone, “How come I wasn’t invited?”

Then Tamar will hear, “She wants to understand.”

The outside observer will hear, “She’s in control of herself, and Tamar and Shira will be able to discuss the issue.”

“Remind your child that both the friend she’s talking to and the fictitious outside observer will also be noticing tone of voice and body language,” Rabbi Kory cautions, “so think about those in advance, too.” A little acting may be called for. If Shira holds her hands with the palms out, it’ll show she’s asking for help, and she should make sure that her face doesn’t display anger.

It’s a good idea for Shira to practice this way of speaking in situations that aren’t so fraught, Rabbi Kory says. Start with a conflict that doesn’t hurt as much as being left out. Once Shira is comfortable with the mental process, she’ll be able to apply it to more emotionally fraught situations.

Considering the three points of view is helpful when preparing for a tactful discussion. It’s also useful for figuring out where mistakes were made in a conversation that turned out badly.

One also has to be on alert of the opposite issue: Being too tactful means a person may not get the result he wants, Rabbi Kory points out. If a teen encounters this problem, he needs to be encouraged to think of a slightly less tactful — while still polite— way to make his point.

“My daughter used to go to gan in a private van,” Rabbi Kory says. “The driver was perfectly punctual, but I wasn’t. He tried several ways of telling me that this wasn’t acceptable. ‘I have another run after this, so I have to be on time,’ was one of them. I didn’t get it, though, until he told me, ‘Eight o’clock you’re here, okay? Understood?’

“It’s fine to start off tactfully, but you may have to adjust the message to get what you need. People are complex. You can never know what’s going to work and what won’t.”

Awkward Adults

Sometimes, the person we have to teach tact to is… ourselves. To those with good Emotional IQ, the following bits of advice might seem obvious, but for those of us who struggle with tact, they may be eye-opening:

Before opening your mouth, ask yourself, “How will this make the other person feel?” Aim to make others feel good, so listen patiently, nod and agree a lot, and only interrupt to say, “Tell me more!”

When you have to criticize, let the other person save face. Try saying, “I’m not sure I’m right, but I’m wondering if (insert your criticism). What do you think?” This works for employees (“I’m wondering if leaving home earlier would help you get to work on time”), bosses (“I’m wondering if I can do a good job if I have to do so much work in so little time”) and friends (“I’m wondering if we shouldn’t keep shopping until we find something more flattering”). Family is more openly skeptical of that tone of voice, and it may not work on them.

Avoid unnecessary conflicts. Debates on emotional topics hardly ever convince anyone to see things differently. They usually generate more heat than enlightenment.

When you want something, don’t just ask for it; ask the other person for their opinion. Once they offer it, they’ve taken ownership of the idea, and will be more agreeable to it. If you want a job lead, ask what they think of your résumé. If you have a shidduch suggestion for their child, ask if they think a boy from Yeshivas XYZ might be good for their daughter. Diplomacy has been described as “the art of letting somebody else have your way.”

Have a goal. Why enter a conversation that needs tact and diplomacy unless you hope to accomplish something?

Show that your relationship is important. Situations that demand tact don’t occur in a vacuum, but in an ongoing relationship. Don’t threaten that relationship by making tit-for-tat rebuttals if someone is responding angrily to you.

Be a black hole that swallows anger and resentment. A school principal once told me that when parents come into his office ranting, he tolerates it for a while, and then interrupts to say, “I’m sorry. I thought you came here to ask me to help you. The way you’re acting doesn’t make me want to help. Can we start all over?” At that point, the parents have invariably calmed down enough to hear what can and can’t be done. Tact isn’t effective when one side of the conversational has his guns locked and loaded.

Some people claim they’re too old to have to bother with tact, or that they’re too straightforward to use wishy-washy dialogue; they just “tell it like it is.” Consider: Does tactless or overly direct conversation really accomplish goals? Or is it just an excuse to pummel people with words?

A Great Balancing Act

Teaching our children — and ourselves — to speak with tact sets them up for success in every area, from the playground to the boardroom. From the youngest age, show them why it’s important and teach them how to use it.

And don’t forget to share Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go with them, which ends with this call to action: “So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact, and remember that life’s a great balancing act.”

Tact in Marriage

“A person who’s not naturally tactful will have difficulty with tough conversations,” Debbie Pfeuffer, a marriage therapist, points out. She teaches clients struggling with tactful communication to use the mirroring method. “Listen carefully and repeat what was said in your own words. That lets you understand your spouse better, and lets him know he was understood. Only then should you offer your opinion.

“I-sentences” are another tactic Debbie suggests. Saying “It’s rude of you to come home late” isn’t as constructive as using words that describe how lateness makes you feel. A couple can argue over whether or not it’s rude to come home late, but there’s no arguing with personal opinions, like, “When you come home late, I feel like you’re not looking forward to seeing me.”

One client of hers complained about her husband’s difficult relationship with his father. She felt her husband was constantly setting himself up to be hurt by trying to form a more positive relationship with this parent. Her client wanted to know if there was a tactful way to point this out or if she should just sit back and watch it happen.

“I taught her to start with an ‘I’ statement: “It breaks my heart to see you get hurt every time you see your father.” Because she’s speaking for herself, she’s not interfering and not attacking him.

“She should then mirror what she’s seeing, so her husband can reflect on it. ‘I see you’re trying to get his help or approval, but he never gives it. Would you say that describes what’s happening?’ Posing it as a question allows him to reach his own conclusions. Even if he wasn’t ready, at least she’d planted a seed.

“I told her, ‘If he’s still listening, validate.’ She said to him, ‘Of course you want these things from him. He’s your father.’ ”

“Then she can plant another seed by saying, ‘I’m wondering, though, if he’s ever been supportive that way. It’s okay to stop hoping he’ll change, and just accept him as he is. It’ll be easier on you.’ ” This way, she’s not asking him to stop wishing his father was more. She’s just telling him she’ll support him if he decides to do so on his own. By approaching this delicate and painful subject with tact, the wife can help her husband consider a new approach while not making him feel attacked or demeaned.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 757)

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