Today’s guest post is written by Alan Cohen.

Earlier this month, The Today Show spent a good portion of their program discussing Facebook parent Tommy Jordan shooting his daughter’s laptop on YouTube.

No doubt, years of family therapy are ahead for the Jordans.

Meanwhile, at a client’s agency, two PR pros who work in close proximity to each other simply chose to unfriend each other on Facebook rather than work out their differences.

The avoidance monster is demonstrated in the terse email sent from boss to employee with a veiled threat of termination. It’s in the breakup text sent by a guy to his girlfriend or his status change to “single,” before informing her.

It’s in the movie, Up In the Air, where Natalie Keener’s character (played by Anna Kendrick), a 20-something techno-arrogant overachiever, recommends the company cut costs by conducting firings over remote computer access.

The moral  of these stories: Tough talks, social media, and email rarely  mix. Yet I see it happening more and more.

I’m on a crusade: To get people to talk and connect, and to stop hiding behind technology.

So my questions to you: When is it OK to have a tough talk by email or via social media?

Or rather, because these modes of communication are really not “a talk,” the question really is: “What topics can be addressed using these platforms?”

Sometimes facts, issues, and concerns are too complex, and require in-person discussion and debate to be adequately addressed.

Ask yourself the following tough questions:

  1. Are you in any way dehumanizing each other during this process (either through the correspondence or in your own mind)?
  2. Are you seeing the other person as anything less than a reasonable, rational, and decent person, with a complex life and feelings, just like your own?
  3. Are you copping out or trying to take a shortcut by not engaging the other individual in a face-to-face conversation?

If so, then you need to immediately humanize this person in your eyes. Get on the phone, hear his or her voice, and acknowledge the human factor.

Social media tools are beneficial for a lot of things, but not for a difficult conversation. Email is no different.

I’ve noticed the reluctance to have tough talks is particularly pervasive with PR professionals.

The craft of public relations is about finding, keeping, and building healthy relationships between an organization (or individual) and key groups. PR people are fearless in talking to reporters, editors, community groups, analysts, activists, and all manner of stakeholders about the merits of the company, client, or cause they represent.

But put them in a situation where they need to have a difficult conversation with a client, manager, or employee and many avoid the experience, regardless of the cost. Some will even deceive themselves into thinking the avoidance is really a virtue they call diplomacy or tact.

According to a survey of more than 100 public relations professionals, the top most difficult conversations to have are addressing personality issues (28.7 percent).

One of the main reasons cited by survey respondents for not wanted to address these issues is discomfort in dealing with the emotional issues that may be provoked by a conversation.

So, it makes perfect sense that email and social would win out – these methods reduce the possibility of emotional connection.

No one is born with the tact essential to tackling life’s needed tough talks. Preparing for and engaging in them often requires that we first confront our beliefs about ourselves and those who affect our performance and well-being.

So, as you decide to brave it and have the tough talk, following are a few valuable tips:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.  Before the talk, know exactly what you want to accomplish and how you plan to get there while remaining open to learning new things. Examine your interpretations, which may not always serve the reality of the situation.
  2. Set the stage before the talk. Ideally, you’ve developed a company culture in which one-on-one talks are not a threatening novelty. Nurture an atmosphere in which staff members aways feel comfortable engaging in frank discussions with colleagues, superiors, and clients. Relationships are made and destroyed one conversation, one tough talk, at a time.
  3. It’s a conversation, not a lecture. No matter how serious the point needs to be made, remember the most successful tough talks are not lectures but give-and-take conversations. So listen—and learn.

Do you have a situation in which you’ve dealt with, or need to deal with, a tough talk?

Alan Cohen, president of Acts of Balance Executive Coaching and Training is a consultant, coach, and executive trainer to public relations professionals and agencies.  He is the author of Tough Talks for PR Pros: How Best to Say What Needs to be Said to Clients, Colleagues and Employees.