Posted by:
Deborah Jane Willimott

Deborah Jane Willimott

June 29, 2015


How to Be Tactful

Sometimes delivering bad news is unavoidable. But if you’re stuck being the messenger, ensure that you get your point across as painlessly (and diplomatically) as possible. We asked personal development coach Julie Clements of Faith Performance, a coaching firm in the UK, for some tactful tips.

The Situation: Your co-worker is a noisy, gossipy, unprofessional distraction.

What You Want to Say: “Shut the fuck up! I’m trying to work here.”

What You Should Say: “I love hanging out with you outside of the office, but during work hours, I get easily distracted. I’m considering moving desks. Is that cool with you?”

Why It Works: “You’re praising her personality and giving her the power back by asking for her input,” says Clements. “Just make sure you tell her this when you’re alone. You don’t want to call her out in front of the entire staff.”


The Situation: You’re invited to dinner at your boss’ house and when you arrive, you find that meat is on the menu—and you’ve been vegan for years.

What You Want to Say: “Do you know what they do to a cow before they slaughter it just so humans can enjoy a steak dinner?”

What You Should Say: “Thank you for all of your trouble, this is amazing. I’m sorry, but obviously you weren’t made aware in time that I don’t eat meat. But the salad looks absolutely delicious.”

Why It Works: Honesty lays the foundations for future openness. By blaming a communication error, she doesn’t feel like a bad hostess.


The Situation: You have to fire an employee—one who’s been a thorn in your side since he got there.

What You Want to Say: “I’ve been dreaming about the day I’d finally be rid of you. Don’t let the door hit ya, you belligerent little asshat.”

What You Should Say: “Your contributions have been valued, but you’re just not the right fit for our company and we’re letting you go. Would you like to collect your things or have them sent to you?”

Why It Works: The “positive–negative–positive” pattern is very powerful, says Clements. Keeping your tone the same throughout helps the positive comments ease the way to and from the crunch moment.


The Situation: A mandatory business retreat is scheduled for the same weekend as your friend’s wedding. When you decline to attend the nuptials, your friend does not take the news well.

What You Want to Say: “I know your wedding is the most important thing in your life right now, but I can’t risk losing my job over it.”

What You Should Say: “This is important to you and incredibly important to me, too. But I will face huge problems if I don’t go on this retreat. I am incredibly upset about this.”

Why It Works: “Stating the facts clearly and simply means you have a rock-solid statement you can repeat if the situation gets overemotional,” says Clements. And deliver the news ASAP—the closer the event, the more emotions run high. Also, to help smooth things over, be as involved as you can with the preparations and after-parties.