Tact: Making a Point Without Making an Enemy

May 16, 1999

“Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.” Proverbs 25:15 Someone noted that tact is like a girdle. It enables you to organize the awkward truth more attractively. A Chinese proverb says it this way: Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from a friends forehead.

Both those statements remind us that often we are called to say “hard truth” to others. Sometimes that means risking the love of those we hold most dear. We must tell them the truth or they will not get better. Perhaps they simply don’t see it, or don’t want to see it. They may have a bad habit that is holding them back or it may be an unseen character flaw that causes them to lose the respect of others. You know it, you see it, and you care about them. Do you care enough to tell the truth? Do you also care enough to speak with tact?

Proverbs 25:15 spells out two strategies you can use. The first is patience. That means waiting till the right moment to speak your mind. Timing is everything. If you embarrass someone publicly, they aren’t likely to respond favorably. Likewise, if you ambush them the moment they walk through the door, they will regard your words as a personal attack. So before you speak, take your time. Think. Pray. Ask God to give you an open door. When it comes, then you are ready for the second strategy.

Second, use a gentle tongue. Just as a gentle answer turns away wrath (cf. 15:1), even so a gentle tongue can break a bone. Here is the picture of a hardened bone being softened bit by bit by the touch of a gentle tongue. It won’t happen quickly, but in most cases gentleness accomplishes far more than threats or intimidation.

So what exactly is this gentle tongue that can break a bone? It is the ability to say the right thing at the right time in the right way without saying anything you didn’t want to say and that didn’t need to be said. A tactful person seeks to find a private place and a fitting moment. It means you refuse to dump all your frustrations on another person. You say what needs to be said in the quickest, kindest, most direct way possible. Then you move on.

Tact is really nothing more than wisdom applied to the “girdle moments” of life. Remember, when you have to speak the awkward truth, don’t use a hatchet to get rid of a fly.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?