(This is the fourth article in our series on the feminine virtues. For the introduction and the other articles, click here.)
Tact is an often overlooked virtue, but one which is absolutely vital for success as a woman. It is perhaps the most feminine of all the virtues. It makes life easier, and it makes everyone around you happier and more confident.
So what is it? Merriam Webster defines it as “a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense.” This is an excellent definition because it does a good job of expressing both the challenge and the beauty of this quality. It is challenging because it requires intelligence and observation skills equal to Sherlock Holmes’s. And it is beautiful because it leads to good relations with all you meet.
Tact can make everything flow smoothly, help everyone get along and everyone get what they want as much as possible. At its best it is courtesy and consideration motivated by love. At its worst, the skill of tact will make you much better at manipulating people for your own ends. Whatever your motives, read on.
Examples of Tact in Action
In the Odyssey, Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, is left at home while he wanders, trying to return to her. He has been gone for twenty years, and many assume that he is dead. So there are piles of men wanting to marry Penelope. She is the queen of Ithaca, and to be her husband would be a step up in the world. Now in Greek society, women had very little power, so with her husband gone and apparently dead, Penelope is left in a vulnerable position. On the one hand, she is being pressured to marry one of the many suitors who are competing for her. On the other hand, all the suitors are losers, and she has no desire to replace Odysseus who—let’s face it—is pretty darn awesome.
In her vulnerable situation, she cannot simply tell all the suitors to get lost and that she’d rather die than marry any of them. So she comes up with a tactful answer. She has to finish the funeral shroud for her father-in-law. She then weaves it every day, and unravels it each night, and thus drags out the task for years. This way she protects herself and her household by not angering the suitors too much, and succeeds in waiting for her husband as she wants to.
Another example of tact which is a little closer to home is a stay-at-home mom who wants her husband to fix something that broke in the house. A tactful wife might wait till after her husband has eaten supper and is relaxed, rather than springing the bad news on him as soon as he walks into the house tired from work. Or a mother correcting a child’s bad behavior in private rather than in front of his friends.
So, how can you up your tact game?
Observe, then Appreciate
In his famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes that “Appreciation is one of the most powerful tools in the world. People will rarely work at their maximum potential under criticism, but honest appreciation brings out their best. Appreciation, though, is not simple flattery, it must be sincere, meaningful and with love.”
How does this apply to real life? Well, if you have a person you are having trouble getting along with, at work, at home, at school, or anywhere, take your next opportunity to observe them closely. This is where your Sherlock Holmes skills come in handy. Try to find something admirable about them. It could be anything—the way they comb their hair, the way they smile, the way they do their work. Almost everyone has some good quality that you can admire.
Next, once you find their admirable quality, tell them about it. “Hey, I like the way you comb your hair. It looks great.” “I just wanted to say how much I appreciate the way you always double check your work.” “Your got that floor really clean when you mopped it.” It doesn’t matter how trivial it is. Comment favorably on their behavior. It will—for all but the most ornery of people—almost definitely result in them doing more of the admired behavior, and, with any luck, they will feel more confident and therefore do other good things too.
What’s in it for You.
Next time you try to get someone to do something—whether it’s trying to get your boss to go ahead with your suggestion, getting your mom to let you watch another show, or getting your kids to clean their room, listen to yourself and see how you ask. Often we are so focused on why WE want something to happen that we completely forget how it seems to other people.
If you want to be effective at getting other people to do things, and like doing them—we can usually find some way of getting our kids to do stuff but it’s not always fun—you need to figure out what’s in it for them and present that first. Now, this has to be done rather subtly sometimes. Not everyone likes being told what they want. A little bit of mental role-play will often give you a clue how to present a question to someone else. Find out what they want, and then explain how your suggestion will help them get it.
This can get kind of complicated when you are doing it with your children. You don’t want to bribe your children with things that they want, like toys and movies and candy. Instead you will want to play to your children’s desires to be treated as a grown-up, and to feel confident and accomplished. But your children are pretty smart and probably won’t respond to “I will think of you as a big responsible and smart person if your room was clean.” It would probably work better to tie privileges to duties as a regular system and to treat your (older) children as responsible humans who can choose to either have their privileges or not.
Let the Other Person Feel Like It Is Their Idea
This is possibly the most powerful technique, and also the most difficult to apply. Has anyone ever tried to convince you to change your mind about something? It’s hard to accept someone else’s idea instead of yours. People just plain like to be right. We all want to feel like we are the smartest person around. And whoever you are trying to convince is no different. But sometimes a person is absolutely sure he is right, but is not so sure what exactly he thinks. This is when this strategy will be your best friend.
If you idea is any good, you can usually persuade someone else that he thought of it himself by simply suggesting it, step by step, and pretending that it was their idea. Not that you lie and say that it was their idea. You simply point out how your idea fits in with their suggestions, and assume, (out loud) that they must have thought of it themselves. It works like a charm.
Now I am not recommending that you go around manipulating people for your own ends. But there are times when you have to get other people to do things, or tell people bad news, or ask people for help. In all of these cases, tact is a fantastic asset to any woman’s toolkit. It makes your life much more enjoyable, and used properly, makes the lives of those we meet more pleasant.
More resources to help you develop tact skills: (These are affiliate links.)
Probably the most famous self-help book ever written, Dale Carnegie’s book is an easy read and can change your life. He explains each of his techniques simply and uses lots of stories to illustrate his points.
Written a few decades ago, this book seems a bit dated in parts but the general idea remains valid today. This is a book about how to have fun as a wife, and how to keep your husband happy and get what you need from him. I enjoyed it a lot.
Yes, I know, I recommend this book a lot. But that’s because I think it’s really good and it can change your life, even if you aren’t married, just by the realization that people need to be loved differently.
(I am running a giveaway for this book. Sign up for email updates to enter.)