Tact and Diplomacy by Tony Cooke

Tact and Diplomacy – Keys to Building (Not Burning) Bridges
Rev. Tony Cooke

A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, But the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness. Proverbs 15:1-2

“Never cut what you can untie.” – Joseph Joubert



Most people who know the Bible are aware that there was a time when the Kingdom of Israel split, but many do not recall what event prompted the division.  The split occurred when King Rehoboam demonstrated insensitivity and harshness toward those under his care and “answered them roughly.”

Rehoboam’s influence as a leader was drastically diminished because he lacked diplomacy and tact in dealing with people (he lost 10 of the 12 tribes), and the saddest part is that he had been told by wise advisors exactly how to relate properly to those under his care (2 Chronicles 10:7): "If you are kind to these people, and please them, and speak good words to them, they will be your servants forever.” 

Relationship break-ups can occur for many other reasons also, but we don’t want to overlook and miss this important lesson in tact and diplomacy.



Many balk at the thought of “pleasing the people” because they think of the insincerity that is spoken of in Colossians 3:23.  They don’t want to be like the slick, artificial, two-faced flatterers they have seen who seek to smooth-talk their way to the top.  In spite of this, there remains a positive side of pleasing people.  Consider these two passages from Paul’s writings:

Just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:33)

Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. (Romans 15:2)

The motive in pleasing people is the key.  Paul wasn’t in a popularity contest (Galatians 1:10), wasn’t obsessed with being politically correct, and he didn’t seek to please people for personal gain.  Rather, he sought to build bridges that would further Kingdom purposes.  He was very deliberate and intentional in this (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).



Effective communication, one of our greatest tools in building positive relationships, involves three key components:

  • Content (What we say)
  • Timing (When we say it)
  • Tact (How we say it)

Unfortunately, many people have seemingly focused exclusively on content, while ignoring the vital components of timing and tact.  What we say (content) is important, but we are not just told to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  Love doesn’t only consider the content or the accuracy of the message, but also considers the well-being of the hearer and cares enough to seek the best way to communicate the truth.  In this article, we’re focusing on tact, and it’s essential to realize that even the greatest content can be significantly undermined if we don’t exercise wisdom and sensitivity in how we communicate that content.

Tact is defined by Merriam-Webster’s On-line Dictionary as:

  • sensitive mental perception
  • a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense
  • skill or grace in dealing with others
  • implies delicate and considerate perception of what is appropriate
  • stresses dexterity and grace in dealing with new and trying situations and may imply success in attaining one’s ends.”

I heard a rather quirky, imaginative story that illustrates the significance of tactfulness.  A king called in one of his seers to inquire of his future.  The seer answered, “You will live to see all of your sons dead.”  Hearing this, the king flew into a rage and ordered the seer to be put to death.  The king then asked a second seer the same question.  This seer said, “You will be blessed with a long life and die at a ripe old age.  You will even outlive all of your family.”  The king was delighted and rewarded the seer with gold and silver.  Both seers reported the same basic fact, but only one of them had tact in the way he communicated his message.



In discussing the reasons ministers fail, Gordon Lindsay said, “…one of the greatest causes of failure is the lack of thoughtfulness or tact.  Many ministers have possessed every qualification for service except this one.  And why do they lack it?  It is largely because they have not taken time to master it.  Tact is thoughtfulness of others; it is sensitivity to the atmosphere of the moment; it is a combination of interest, sincerity, and brotherly love—giving the other fellow a sense of ease in one’s presence.  In a word, it is Christian love—the practice of the golden rule.”

Oswald Sanders, another great spiritual leader, said, “The original meaning of the word tact referred to the sense of touch, and came to mean skill in dealing with persons or sensitive situations. Tact is defined as ‘intuitive perception, especially a quick and fine perception of what is fit and proper and right.’ It alludes to one’s ability to conduct delicate negotiations and personal matters in a way that recognizes mutual rights, and yet leads to a harmonious solution.”

J.G. Randall stated, “Tact is a number of qualities working together: insight into human nature, sympathy, self-control, a knack of inducing self-control in others, avoidance of human blundering, readiness to give the immediate situation an understanding mind and a second thought.  Tact is not only kindness, but kindness skillfully extended.”

Baltasar Gracian said, “Cultivate tact, for it is the mark of culture… the lubricant of human relationships, softening contacts and minimizing friction.”

Bible Commentator, Alexander Maclaren remarked, “Kindness makes a person attractive. If you would win the world, melt it, do not hammer it.”

Another wisely said, “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.”

If any person ever realized that it was impossible to please everyone, it was President Abraham Lincoln.  He led the United States through its most difficult and divided days.  Realizing the importance of maintaining good relationships whenever possible (and sometimes it wasn’t possible) and avoiding all unnecessary offenses, Lincoln said: “The sharpness of a refusal or the edge of a rebuke may be blunted by an appropriate story so as to save wounded feelings and yet serve the purpose.”  In other words, Lincoln knew that he had to make tough decisions that not everyone would agree with, but he went out of his way to communicate those decisions and positions in ways that would cause the least amount of damage and would hopefully facilitate ongoing, positive relationships.

Consider the following Scriptures that deal with graciousness in communication.

  • The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary. (Isaiah 50:4)
  • A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (Proverbs 25:11)
  • Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones. (Proverbs 16:24)
  • So all bore witness to Him (Jesus), and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. (Luke 4:22)
  • Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one. (Colossians 4:6)



It would be misleading to give the impression, though, that tactfulness and diplomacy is a magic wand that will guarantee unqualified success in every situation.  Paul indicated that getting along with people was not always possible.  He said, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18).

The fact that you do your part, exercising wisdom and graciousness, is no guarantee that others will automatically act the way you’d like them to.  People marveled at the gracious words that were uttered by Jesus, but He was still crucified.  John was known as “The Apostle of Love,” but he still ended up being exiled to the Isle of Patmos.  

Regardless of the reactions of others—whether they do the right thing or not—we still have a responsibility to become the best communicators that we can be, walking in kindness and wisdom, and doing everything within our power (and with God’s help) to build the best relationships with people that we possibly can.

May God give us wisdom as we purpose that our words will minister grace to all that hear them.