Two Studies Confirm That Email Sucks for Divorce Negotiations

There’s a lot that happens in a meeting that can’t be replaced with a digital memo.
— David Burkus, Harvard Business Review

One question often posed about Collaborative Divorce is why we insist on so much of the work being done in joint meetings. Simply put, the answer is that in-person meetings are scientifically proven — time and time again — to be the best method of having the meaningful conversations that are vital to reaching durable agreements.

As you read this, there are people out there applying rigorous scientific techniques to figuring out the most effective means of communication. Why? Not just because they're touchy-feely do-gooders (although some are), but because the way we communicate can translate to huge gains or losses — whether in the boardroom or in divorce.

Consider a recent article from Harvard Business Review, No, That Meeting Could Not Have Been an Email, describing two studies on the perils of email communication. The article is well worth reading in its entirety, but here is a quick summary. In the first study, email recipients were asked to distinguish serious statements from sarcasm. They were successful only about half the time — roughly equivalent to a coin toss. In the second study, the outcomes of interviews conducted over email showed significant biases that weren't present when the same interviews were conducted by phone. The upshot of both studies was that "humans consistently overestimate the ability of an email receiver’s ability to ascertain context, and that when we lack this information, we often fill in the gaps with stereotypes and potentially faulty guesses."

In divorce, "stereotypes and potentially faulty guesses" are rampant. Even in the best of times, couples make incorrect assumptions about each other. We misread each other's tones of voice. We presume to know each other's underlying intentions. We attribute undue significance to some statements and not enough significance to other statements. Email exacerbates those communication challenges to a degree that cannot be tolerated in principled divorce negotiations.

It's not easy to sit at a table and talk about divorce. It's downright hard. It's messy and uncomfortable, and the desire to avoid it is very understandable. Still, it's the best way to actually understand each other — particularly when, as in Collaborative Divorce, there are professionals in the room to help — and ultimately reach meaningful agreements for your respective futures.

Don't just take my word for it. It's science.