The Huge Problem Divorce Attorneys and Hostage Negotiators Share

"My train is running late," I wrote in my text message to a colleague, "I'll be there in about 20 minutes."

Answer: "Fine."

Fine?

Fine?

What does she mean, "Fine?" Does she mean, "No problem," or a more exasperated, "Oh, fine!" I really hoped it wasn't the latter!

Whenever I read what somebody has written, I do my best to assume the best possible interpretation — and in this case, I was right. The problem is, you just can't know for sure until you've checked back in with the person, and sometimes you aren't given that opportunity.

Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation highlighted this problem in a blog post last year, describing how police and professional hostage negotiators increasingly find themselves forced to communicate with hostage-takers and other people in crisis by text message. The problem with this is clear: written communication doesn't provide the professional with the opportunity to exercise some of his or her most essential skills, "such as engaging in active listening, determining the person’s emotions from his or her inflection, and trust building." Thus, while a crisis negotiator might required to begin a dialogue through text message, "[t]heir chief goal [is to] get the troubled individual to stop typing and put the phone to his ear."

So it goes also with divorce negotiations and email. As author Katie Shonk points out:

The drawbacks of conducting crisis negotiations via text parallel the challenges of conducting ... negotiations via email. Negotiation researchers refer to email as an “impoverished” mode of communication because it lacks the visual and vocal cues that foster understanding and trust in face-to-face talks.

Yesterday, I wrote about the perils of negotiating the terms of a divorce through attorneys, because of the huge potential for miscommunication. Divorce attorneys might be tempted to reduce the risk of miscommunication by putting pen to paper (or more likely, finger to keyboard) and communicating with each other in writing.

That's not good enough.

People going through divorce are, by and large, people in crisis. They are being stretched thin, emotionally and financially, probably more than they ever have been before or ever will be again. As such, while divorce may not be a life-or-death situation, it is incumbent upon us to exercise the same in-person negotiation skills that other crisis negotiators find so invaluable.

We need to get people talking. Not through attorneys and not through emails. Face to face.

There is no adequate substitute.