Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.
– Isaac Newton
Are you blunt with your clients? Or, perhaps you are tactful and diplomatic? Do you vary your approach to suit your perceptions of each clients’ needs? Or, are you simply yourself, and the clients that book appointments accept you for how you are? Some therapists are very public in their dismissal of social niceties, and promote a more abrasive approach. This could be a marketing strategy, or simply their acknowledgement of their inability to moderate any extremes of their personality. There are also some therapists who have ‘shock’ as a therapy model; aiming to shift a client out of their present state with either harsh comments, or anti-social comments and behaviour. Indeed, there is a view that change occurs in response to challenge, and where it is pitched at the right level of intensity for the client, it can motivate them to engage (‘fight’) rather than withdraw (‘flight’). For example, with a client who is talking around a situation, rather than directly addressing it, instead of bluntly calling them on their behaviour, such as; “You said you wanted to talk about your colleague but not giving me anything relevant”, you could be more inquisitive, “You mentioned a problem with a colleague’s behaviour, yet have spent twenty minutes talking about your friend. Could you be avoiding talking about the colleague?”
Abrasive models tend not to rely on the building of rapport, however, ‘challenge’ does not need to be a battle. Whilst some may regard challenge as an aggressive, provocative confrontation, which it can be at one end of a spectrum, at the other end it can be more compassionate and evocative. This may take a gentle and empathetic line or a more analytic and strategic approach. Within both of these types of models, tact and diplomacy contribute towards the development and maintenance of therapeutic rapport. An analytic and strategic approach to challenging the client might be appropriate when working from a cognitive perspective, exploring perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. The gentle and empathetic approach to challenging a client tends to be more emotion based. Whether working with thoughts or emotions, tact, and diplomacy can be thought of as key skills of an effective and persuasive therapist; who understands how to speak with a client and say what is most appropriate, in a way that doesn’t damage the therapeutic relationship by causing offence.
Tactful communication engages an ability to tell the truth in a way that considers feelings and reactions, gives difficult feedback, communicates sensitive information and preserves a therapeutic relationship. It encompasses different aspects of emotional intelligence, respect, discretion, self-awareness, thoughtfulness, compassion, subtlety, honesty, diplomacy, and courtesy. Communicating tactfully can strengthen your reputation and builds credibility, whilst showing a positive character, maturity, professionalism, and integrity. Furthermore, many clients respect good manners and those who can communicate with grace and consideration. This helps you get noticed for the right reasons. Being able to use sensitivity in dealing with difficult or delicate issues is helpful when working with a broad range of clients. By demonstrating understanding of other people and being aware of and sensitive to their feelings, beliefs, ideas and opinions, this can lead to increased rapport, together with more successful outcomes. Such understanding comes from being able to read what the client intends and then responding in a way that avoids any feelings of discomfort or awkwardness, whilst still communicating in such a way that is effective in conveying your views.
Although some people are naturally tactful, skills can be developed and the benefits will extend beyond the therapy room, helping you communicate more effectively in your personal life as well, whether with loved ones, friends or family, both developing and maintaining positive relationships. The application of good judgement can be practiced, as can other core skills, including active listening, and engagement of emotional intelligence. Active listening, of ‘what’ is said, ‘how’ it is being said, and ‘what’ is meant by what is said, enables you to both understand, and respond appropriately to the client. Accurate listening can help you avoid causing distress or disturbance, by being fully aware of the message the client wishes to share with you. Together with being focused on what the client is saying, being able to understand and moderate your own emotions can help you avoid reacting over-emotionally to the client.
Being emotionally intelligent as a therapist, with greater empathy, seeing the world from the client’s perspective, can demonstrate tact and diplomacy throughout the therapy process and enhance therapeutic rapport. Furthermore, although there are many different components of rapport, being polite and courteous, and respecting viewpoints and cultural differences, can help you be more assertive, and better persuade or influence your clients.
A demanding client wants to move her appointment so she can leave early for a weekend away. When you explained there are no free slots, she asks you to move someone to accommodate her. A tactful response might be: “I understand that you are keen to have an appointment sooner, rather than delay it. However, I am sorry that I cannot help you this time because I like to honour my clients’ appointments and their commitments. Would you like to reschedule to next week when I have more time?”
A client is regularly late for her appointment which is the last one before lunch. You are annoyed as to give her a full session will use up most of your lunch break. You are tempted to challenge the client about her lateness and tell her it isn’t acceptable. However, you take a step back, and start with an enquiring approach: “I have noticed you have had trouble getting to your scheduled appointments. Would it help to change to a different time slot?”
Key tips in developing your tactful and diplomatic skills
Create the right environment and think before you speak.
Choose your words carefully. For example, avoid “you…”, or implying judgement in your statements.
Keep your body language and other non-verbal language congruent to what you are saying.
Keep focused on what you want to achieve.
Be explicit factually, rather than emotionally; be precise in your use of fact and logic.
With a potentially challenging conversation, focus on what is the desired outcome. Consider the facts, and step back from your emotions.
Find common ground among opposing viewpoints, and aim to consider multiple points of view.
Withhold your opinion; let the client think it was their idea.
Hold back your ideas until you fully understand the client’s point of view.
Turn statements into questions, instead of saying opinion, ask what the client think about it.
Avoid becoming emotional, or defensive, responding to buttons your client has pushed.
Keep your discussions away from your own negative emotions.
Keep open minded, calm and focused.
If a conversation gets heated, have room to respond, rather than inflame a situation.
Keep control, and think rather than respond emotionally.
Remember, a tactful and diplomatic communication strategy can help you be an effective therapist. Imagine how good it can be to influence and convince clients to change with causing offence, disturbance or damaging the therapeutic relationship; in fact, you could even enhance it. It is possible to be honest, without resorting to brutality. You can develop a positive impression with clients, who will remember your use of reason, kindness and compassion, as they respond to the respect you show for them.
We hope you this blog on tact and diplomacy has been helpful, and if you have any questions relating to this blog, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks