Diplomacy is a powerful social skill that helps build healthy relationships, resolve conflict, and encourage people with differing views to work together. In this article, you’ll learn what it means to be diplomatic and how to practice diplomacy in sensitive situations.
Diplomacy is the art of handling delicate social situations in a sensitive way that respects other people’s feelings. It’s sometimes referred to as tact.
Here are the key traits and behaviors of diplomatic people:
- They can have difficult discussions without damaging the relationships they have with other people.
- They remain calm in tense situations.
- They understand that humans aren’t always rational. They don’t take other people’s negative reactions personally.
- They can pass on bad news and criticism in a compassionate way.
- They respect that everyone has a unique perspective, and they try to understand other people’s opinions.
- They don’t try to “win” arguments. Instead, they try to understand other perspectives.
- They are good at mediating between two or more people who don’t see eye to eye on an issue.
- They are problem-solvers who try to find solutions that address everyone’s needs.
- They remain polite to everyone, even those who irritate or anger them.
Here are some tips that will help you handle sensitive situations in a calm, graceful way that gives everyone involved a chance to feel heard and understood.
You cannot be diplomatic unless you understand their position and feelings. To see things from their point of view, you need to listen.
Specifically, you want to be an active listener. This means:
- Giving people your undivided attention when they are speaking
- Allowing people to finish their sentences
- Trying to focus on what others are saying instead of just waiting for your turn to speak
- Using verbal and nonverbal cues to show that you are paying attention; for example, by saying “Uh-huh, go on” or nodding your head when they make a key point
Check out our guide on how to be a better listener for more tips.
Even if you listen carefully to someone, you might not immediately understand what they are trying to tell you. It can help to ask questions to check that you’ve grasped what they are saying.
Asking thoughtful questions can prevent misunderstandings. It also signals that you are genuinely interested in the other person’s thoughts, which can help build trust and rapport, which are important when you’re negotiating or talking about sensitive subjects.
Here are some questions you could ask if you’re unsure what someone else means:
- “I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Could you tell me a bit more about that?”
- “Could you expand a little on the point you made about X?”
- “Can I check I’ve understood you properly? I think you’re saying that my friends come around to the flat too often, is that right?”
Empathy involves imagining yourself in someone else’s position and seeing things from their perspective. If you can empathize with someone, it may be easier to speak and behave diplomatically in a delicate social situation. This is because when you understand another person’s feelings, it may be easier to choose both what to say and how to say it.
For example, let’s say you need to decline an invitation to your in-laws’ big family Christmas party. If you try to put yourself in their shoes, you may realize that they haven’t seen their family for a long time and will probably be looking forward to the party. It’s reasonable to guess that they’ll be disappointed when their relatives (including you) turn down the invitation.
With this in mind, “No thanks” probably wouldn’t be tactful enough. Instead, something like, “We’d love to come, but we simply can’t make it,” said in a warm tone of voice, would be better.
If you don’t consider yourself to be a naturally empathic person, check out this article on what to do if you can’t relate to other people.
It’s not always possible to prepare for a tricky discussion in advance. However, if you have an opportunity to plan what you’d like to say, it’s a good idea to make a bulleted list of everything you’d like to cover. A list will help you focus on key facts and issues, which can make it easier to have a clear, constructive conversation.
For example, let’s say you are having a meeting with an employee because they are persistently late to work. Your objective is to find out why the employee isn’t turning up on time.
You might write a list that looks something like this:
- Spell out a key fact: Late 7 days out of the past 10
- Spell out consequence: Coworkers have to take on extra work
- Ask a question: “Why have you been arriving late in the mornings?”
- Ask a question: “How can we solve the problem so that you arrive on time?”
By referring to this list during the meeting, you may find it easier to stay on track and engage with your employee so that you can resolve the issue together. You don’t have to write out a word-for-word script; just include as much detail as you feel is necessary.
If you are quick to lose your temper, the person you’re speaking to might lose respect for you, which can make meaningful, diplomatic communication difficult. If you feel angry, upset, or frustrated, try to calm yourself down.
Here are some things you can do to keep your emotions in check:
- Excuse yourself for 5 minutes and do some deep breathing exercises outside or in the bathroom.
- Ask yourself, “Will this matter in one week/one month/one year from now?” This can help you keep a sense of perspective, which in turn can help you stay calm.
- Do a grounding exercise. For example, you could try naming 3 things you can see, 3 things you can hear, and 3 things you can touch.
Diplomatic people are honest, but they know how to soften criticism, rejection, and bad news by using gentle language.
Here are some ways you can use softening language when you need to be diplomatic:
- Instead of using negative adjectives, use a positive adjective and “not very.” For example, instead of saying, “Rhonda’s note-taking skills are poor,” you could say, “Rhonda’s note-taking skills are not very good.”
- Use qualifiers such as “somewhat,” “a bit,” or “a little.” For example, instead of saying, “The garden is a complete mess,” you could say, “The garden is a little messy.”
- Use hedging words that imply uncertainty instead of judgment. For example, instead of saying, “That’s a terrible idea,” you could say, “I’m not sure we should go with that idea.”
- Use negative questions. For example, instead of saying, “We need to re-evaluate this budget,” you could ask, “Don’t you think we should re-evaluate this budget?”
- Use “sorry.” For example, instead of saying, “I don’t like pasta,” you could say, “Sorry, I don’t really like pasta,” or “I’m sorry that we can’t fix that today” rather than “We can’t fix that today.”
The passive voice is often perceived as less confrontational than the active voice, so it can be useful when you need to be diplomatic.
For example, let’s say you hire a decorator who promises that they will finish painting your dining room on a particular day. But it’s late in the afternoon, and they haven’t made much progress.
You could say, “You told us that you’d paint the dining room today, but you haven’t done it. To tell you the truth, I’m very disappointed.”
Alternatively, you could use the passive voice to make your feelings clear in a more diplomatic way. For example, you might say, “We were told that the dining room would be painted today, but it hasn’t been done, which is disappointing.”
If you need to talk about what someone is doing wrong, avoid making generalized, sweeping statements such as “Sally is too mean to our customers” or “Raj never tidies up.” Instead, focus on specific concerns, facts, and possible negative outcomes.
For example, let’s say that a new employee has joined your team. Although they try hard and are pleasant to be around, it becomes clear that they don’t have the right skill set for the job. As the team leader, you decide to raise the issue with your manager.
If you said, “Rob isn’t very good at his job, and I don’t think he should have been hired,” you’d put your manager on the defensive and potentially create an awkward atmosphere.
Instead, you could say something like, “Rob is a really nice, positive person to have around, but I’m worried that he doesn’t understand what his new role involves. [Concern] Last week, he told me that he didn’t understand the terms Peter used in his presentation about customer service. [Fact] Our team will struggle to get everything done if he isn’t sure what he’s meant to be doing [Possible negative outcome].”
In general, it’s best to avoid starting sentences with “You never…” or “You always…” Accusatory language often makes people feel defensive.
Instead, try stating how you feel and use facts to explain why you feel that way. This can help you avoid coming across as aggressive or confrontational.
For example, instead of saying, “You’re drinking too much in the evenings,” you could say, “I’m a bit concerned because, over the past few weeks, you’ve had several drinks every night after dinner.”
If you need to give negative feedback, try adding a helpful suggestion alongside criticism. When you make a suggestion instead of an order, you’re more likely to come across as reasonable and collaborative rather than angry or overly critical.
For example, instead of saying, “Do this report again, and please make it easier to read this time,” you could say, “Maybe you could try breaking the key points down into short sections and bullet points? That might make your report easier to read.”
If you choose an inappropriate time to have a sensitive conversation, you might make the other person feel defensive, embarrassed, or angry, which can make it hard to have a calm, rational conversation.
It can help to ask yourself, “If someone else were to tell me the same thing I’m about to tell this person, would I want to have the conversation at another time or in another place?”
Diplomatic people do not lie or hold back important information. However, they know that often, negative feedback can be easier to accept if it’s accompanied by praise.
For example, let’s say your wife or husband cooks you a three-course meal at home to celebrate your birthday. Unfortunately, the dessert didn’t turn out very well. After the meal, your spouse asks you to tell them what you really thought of it.
If you were completely honest and answered the question in a literal way, you’d probably hurt their feelings. It would be tactless to say, for example, “The first two courses were delicious, but the dessert was really unpleasant.”
A more diplomatic answer would be, “I really enjoyed the soup, and the ravioli was fantastic. The dessert was maybe a little dry, but I loved the presentation.”
Other people may be more likely to listen to you and respect what you have to say if your body language is open and friendly.
Here’s how to use positive body language when you need to be diplomatic:
- Relax the muscles in your face and neck; this can help you appear less stern and tense.
- Make eye contact, but do not stare because holding someone’s gaze for too long can make you come across as aggressive.
- Avoid crossing your legs and arms, as this can make you come across as defensive.
- Do not stand over someone when they are sitting down, as this can make you come across as intimidating.
For more tips, see our guide on how to use confident body language.
Even if your words are tactful, you won’t come across as diplomatic if you speak in an angry, flat, or sarcastic tone of voice. Try to speak nicely. If you’re preparing for a difficult discussion, it can help to rehearse what you’re going to say aloud in private in a polite, calm tone.
You don’t have to make excuses for someone’s mistakes, but suggesting a plausible reason for their error can be a good diplomatic maneuver that allows them to save face.
For example, rather than saying, “This presentation is full of spelling mistakes. Fix it by tomorrow,” you could say, “This presentation hasn’t been thoroughly edited. I know you’ve been really busy this week; maybe you didn’t have time. It would be great if you could proofread it again by tomorrow afternoon.”
Diplomatic people are sensitive to other peoples’ feelings, but they don’t allow everyone to walk all over them. They are confident but not aggressive and try to negotiate an outcome that benefits as many people as possible.
If you tend to go along with what others want rather than standing up for what you believe in or need, check out our article that explains what to do if people treat you like a doormat. We also have an article about how you can get people to respect you which contains practical advice on assertive communication.
A mutual sense of respect and rapport can go a long way when you need to work with someone to resolve a delicate situation. To encourage them to feel as though you’re on the same wavelength, try adapting your vocabulary and tone of voice to suit the context. For example, using very informal language in the workplace when you’re raising a delicate issue with your boss may come across as disrespectful and unprofessional.
In sensitive social situations, being diplomatic is usually good. But sometimes, a blunter approach is better. For example, if you’ve tried to give criticism tactfully, but the other person doesn’t understand where they’ve gone wrong, you might need to give some blunt feedback.
If you can usually find the right words to diffuse or smooth over awkward social situations while still managing to get your message across, you are probably diplomatic. If you have a reputation as a good negotiator or peacemaker, it’s likely that other people see you as a diplomatic person.
Yes, diplomatic people are honest. However, they are not brutally frank. Diplomatic people know how to deliver bad news or criticism in a sensitive way without glossing over the truth.