Being Tactful – Speaking Activities / Role Plays (ESL/EFL)

ESL Level: Upper-Intermediate+
Class time: 25 minutes
Language Focus: expressions for tact, modals, noun clauses

Activity Description

Before doing a role-play, it's a good idea to teach your student some new expressions or grammar that they can practice. For tact, LinguaHouse has a great lesson on Being Tactful available free online. First, do that lesson with your students (I copied the text onto a worksheet so each student had it on paper, and then we did the listening and exercises together). The lesson will take about 50 minutes.

Off the top of my head, some common strategies for being tactful are as follows:

  • Adding a modal to the BE verb to make it weaker ("He is wrong." -> "He might/may/could be wrong.")
  • Adding adverbs (slightly/completely/100%) and quantifiers (a little/a bit) ("He might be slightly wrong. / He could be a little wrong.")
  • Changing negative language to positive ("He might not be completely correct.")
  • Adding phrases like "In my opinion" or "I'm not sure"
  • Contrasting the negative statement with a positive one. ("Jim has some great ideas, but, in this case, he may not be completely correct.")
  • Changing the statement into a question ("Do you think this is correct?")
  • Using the passive voice ("A mistake may have been made.")

Next, (back to the activity), introduce the idea of a yearly performance review to your class. Tell them that managers/bosses review the performance of their employees regularly and offer them positive and negative feedback. Brainstorm a list of negative feedback a manager might give an employee. Write the ideas on the board. Afterwards, invite a student in the class to come sit in a chair at the front. Thank him for coming to the yearly performance review, and start with a little small talk (So, Jim, you've been with us for one year now... time flies, doesn't it?) Then, proceed to give him the negative feedback (ideas written on the board) tactfully. When finished, thank him for his time and close the meeting.

With the class, discuss how being tactful helped soften the criticism and promote goodwill.

Afterwards, tell your students they are going to role-play the same situation. Now, there are two ways to approach this. The more creative way would be to have the students in pairs brainstorm a list of employee feedback (negative and positive). Then they could use these ideas in a role-play with each other.

The less creative approach is to use the below tact role-play cards. This way, students won't have to think (which is sometimes a good thing) and it might take them further outside their comfort zone.

Activity #1: Tact Role-Play Cards

File Downloadbeing-tactful-esl.docx

Being Tactful — Scenario #1 — Kelly

You are a manager. It's time for the yearly performance review of your employees. Today you will meet with Kelly, one of your employees.

This is what you think of Kelly:

  1. (s)he doesn't work well with others (people don't like to work with her really -- she's mean).
  2. she works slowly compared to everyone else.
  3. She doesn't check her e-mail enough, so she often misses important announcements.
  4. she says inappropriate things about other members of the team.
  5. She often brags about her salary to her coworkers, whom all make less money
  6. (s)he wears too much perfume (it stinks!)

You can't fire her because she's the daughter of the CEO, but you have to talk to her about these issues today. Please discuss them with her tactfully.

Being Tactful — Scenario #2 - Kai

You are a manager. It's time for the yearly performance review of your employees. Today you will meet with Kai, one of your employees.

This is what you think of Kai:

  1. he eats strange fishy food for lunch every day. It stinks so bad that no one else can sit near him.
  2. he sometimes falls asleep at his desk after lunch. (Wake up and work!)
  3. He calls the female employees in the office `baby' and `honey', which isn't appropriate (they have complained)
  4. There are way too many spelling mistakes in his writing/emails.
  5. He spends too much time talking to coworkers about his personal problems (shut up and get to work!)
  6. He often wears inappropriate clothing to work (jeans, sandals)

You don't want to fire him because he is going through a tough time in his life right now. His wife just divorced him, and he's having financial trouble. You don't want to drive him into depression. Have a tactful meeting with him and try to get him to improve.


Give each manager at least 2 minutes to prepare for the role-play. The employee can just relax while the manager prepares. When finished, give the second role-play card to the other student, so s/he can practice being a tactful boss. If you think six criticisms is too much, you can tell them that they don't have to cover all the points on the cards.


Activity #2: Sentences & (More) Role-Plays

Tact Worksheet Downloadtactful-roleplays2-esl.docx


In the first part (Part 1), students (in pairs) rewrite six untactful sentences to make them more tactful. Before doing this, you should teach them some strategies for being tactful (see the LinguaHouse link above or look at my common strategies above).

After taking up the answers as a group, move on to Part 2. In this part, students first brainstorm some problems they might have with either a mother-in-law or neighbour.

Afterwards, they use these ideas as a basis of a role-play with their partner.

Tact Worksheet Preview

Tact is a communication skill that involves reducing the impact of a critical statement in a way that respects the feelings of others. Tact helps maintain good relationships with others.

Part 1: Pairwork: What are some strategies we can use to make the below sentences more tactful? Discuss the best way to rewrite them (and then rewrite them).

  • Your perfume is too strong.
  • Tell your kid to shut up.
  • I don't want to waste my time talking with you on the phone anymore. I have more important things to do.
  • I need the report NOW.
  • This has waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much salt.
  • I don't want to go out for lunch with you.

Part 2: Role-plays

Student A Role-Play: Mother-in-law from hell

1) Write down some problems someone might have with their mother-in law below. Can write them in point form.


2) When finished, role-play a meeting with your mother-in-law (Student B). Remember to be tactful; you don't want to destroy your relationship with her.


Student B Role-Play: Neighbour from hell

1) Write down some problems someone might have with your neighbour. Can write them in point form.


2) When finished, role-play a meeting with your neighbour (Student A). Remember to be tactful; you don't want to destroy your relationship with him/her.


Tactfully yours,

- Created by Matthew Barton of

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8 comments on “Being Tactful – Speaking Activities / Role Plays (ESL/EFL)

  1. Annet N Dragavon (Posted on 10-25-2016 at 15:54) Reply

    Fantastic resource! Thank you for publishing this. My students — workplace English class — loved it!

  2. maria (Posted on 12-19-2016 at 09:19) Reply

    These activities are awesome!! Thanks!!

  3. lauren frisch (Posted on 4-25-2017 at 13:12) Reply

    Great lesson! I’m wondering how to rewrite those sentences. Any suggested answers?

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 4-25-2017 at 13:38) Reply

      Hello. Just use some/one of the common strategies above (see ‘common strategies’). For example, modals to soften the message (may/might/could) + adverbs (a little / slightly).
      So, the sentence “Your perfume is too strong” becomes “Your perfume might be a little strong”

  4. Christian V. (Posted on 5-16-2017 at 23:44) Reply

    Great lesson!
    Thanks a lot for sharing it!

  5. Lyna F. (Posted on 7-15-2017 at 14:16) Reply

    Great lesson materials, especially for adult learners. Conversation lessons are hard to find; I’m so glad I stumbled onto this website. I will definitely return and contribute to the site. Keep up the good work!

  6. SuissE Mouchin (Posted on 11-28-2017 at 07:34) Reply

    Great lesson, i do appreciate it

  7. VC (Posted on 12-27-2020 at 15:56) Reply

    Thank you so much for such a wonderful lesson plan/activities.

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