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Five Tips For Tact
by Marlene Chism

Managers face the difficult task of giving advice and criticism. Both of these tasks threaten to damage professional relationships if not handled properly. While giving critical feedback is a necessary evil, there are those who, as one philosopher said, “find fault as if it were buried treasure.” Using the appropriate words, watching the order and placement of your language as well as increasing your own self-awareness will help you strike a balance in your leadership. Here are five tips for tact:

Criticize in private

Don’t criticize in public or in front of anyone other than the person you are addressing. This sounds simple enough, but private means no one else but you and the person you are critiquing. I once heard someone say to another person, “There are several broken links on your web page.” The problem was that they said this in front of three of this person’s business associates. While it wasn’t in front of a crowd it was still embarrassing for everyone at the table. There are instances where it’s important to give immediate feedback. For example at a company awards banquet several years ago I noticed an associate with a price tag hanging from her new sweater. I passed her a handwritten note telling her I would meet her in the restroom to cut the tag.

Use Evaluation Language

If you are challenged and need some coaching a good idea is to join Toastmasters. As you learn how to critique by using ‘evaluation language’ you become skilled at how to ‘take evaluation’ as well. Some examples of evaluation language can be seen in the following bullet points.

• “The report just needs a little tweaking…”
• “Here are some opportunities for growth…”
• “Some future suggestions are…”
• I’ve made a few observations that I have some questions about…

As the leader, it’s your job to critique and it’s a good idea to offer part of the solution or to support them in their improvement. However if this is a business associate it’s best to use wisdom when offering free advice. Be sure to ask if they want feedback or suggestions rather than making the assumption that they want your advice. Notice what is already excellent and comment on past improvements. It helps soften the criticism.

Use pronouns effectively

Use the pronoun ‘you’ when complimenting and avoid using ‘you’ when you are giving critical review. Which sounds better: “I enjoyed reading your report,” or “you wrote a great report.” The pronoun ‘you’ gives a sense of ownership, therefore it is harsh when used prior to criticism. Which sounds worse: “I observed a few grammatical errors on the report.” Or, “You made several grammatical errors on the report.”

Make observations not judgments

If you must criticize, your statements should be based on facts and observations instead of judgments. A judgment indicates there is something moral or immoral and it speaks more about your own perception of what you believe to be the other person’s intentions. Consider the difference in these two statements said to a person who continually interrupts:

“You think what you say is more important than what I have to say.” (Judgment) Or, “I’ve noticed that when I start to speak, I am not allowed to finish my sentence.” (Observation.) Observations are based on evidence or facts and judgments are based on internal values, beliefs and morals. To paraphrase famous author Wayne Dyer, “your judgments do not define anyone else but you.”

Avoid “if I were you” statements

The most absurd statement that often precedes advice giving is “If I were you.” It should be avoided. One of my favorite statements: “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas!” If you “were they,” you would think, act and behave exactly as they have, because you would be them! A better statement is, “considering the information you have given me, my suggestion would be to…”

Go from negative to positive

Ask for what you want instead of what you don’t want. If you observe the language of other managers, you will find that most talk in the negative by expressing what they don’t want instead of what they do want. Using the same example from “making observations instead of judgments” consider the following statements.

“I don’t want to be interrupted.” (Negative)
“I would like to finish what I was saying.”(Positive)

Even though the meaning is basically the same, the second statement is more tactful; more carefully placed and is just as direct without lacking diplomacy.

About Marlene Chism

Marlene Chism, M.A. is a relationship development expert that speaks professionally across the United States. Marlene works with companies that want to "stop the drama" so that productivity and teamwork can thrive and with individuals that want to go to the next leve. To reach Marlene call 1. 888.434.9085 or visit

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