My father ran for the office of mayor of our small town when I was in high school. He ran out of a sense of doing his civic duty and wanting to make a difference. Our town was on the Mississippi river in Illinois and otherwise peaceful and a comfortable place to live and grow up. During Dad’s term of office the river flooded overthrowing its banks and, consequently, filling the basements of many nice homes along the river. That was when our phone started ringing incessantly with outraged citizens demanding that the mayor do something. Dad finally took the phone off the hook. He had no solution for changing the flow of the river.
At about that time in my life I was learning survival skills and how to get along with others, failing as often as not. Dad was always teaching, coaching, and cheering me on. He tried to teach me tact. I knew nothing about using tact—and had no skill in using it. I remember pleading with him about all the idiots I had to put up with and how impossible they were to deal with—and besides, I did not know what tact was. He gave me Winston Churchill’s definition: Tact is the ability of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.
I still think of that lesson when I say something stupid to someone and immediately regret my tactless behavior. I never quite mastered the skill. But I believe in tact and realize just how much this world needs it. The interpersonal incivility and anger we witness threaten our society and peacefulness. I tried to teach my students the importance and skill of using tact in organizations just to get along—let alone to get anything done. Because it all starts there—respecting the person we are dealing with to start. That starts with listening respectfully.
It is nearly impossible to be calm when your basement is filling up with dirty river water. But we can give the guy a little help by a little kindness even when we don’t have a lot of solution—we start by respecting the person and being gentle amid the chaos.
J. Patrick Murphy, C.M., Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Public Service at DePaul University and Values Director for Depaul International, an organization that serves homeless people in seven countries.