Who’d be a witness?
Phil Lowe, one of our communications experts, explains why well-meaning advice to witnesses such as “answer the question” does not work without practice.
Your mouth is dry. Your heart is pounding. Your breathing is fast and shallow. Though you try to sit still, you have an overwhelming urge to move which leads you to fidget on your seat and fiddle with your hands.
And the casual observer in court looking at you doesn’t think: “That poor witness has fallen victim to the fight-or-flight response”; they usually think: “They look shifty. Can we trust their evidence? What are they trying to hide?”
Who’d be a witness?
Sadly, one doesn’t have much say in the matter. So is there anything that will make the experience easier?
As someone who started his career in the theatre and ended it as a member of the judiciary, I feel well placed to answer this. Actors, after all, suffer the dry mouth and sense of rising panic well known to poorly prepared witnesses; and those of us who have to make judgments on legal cases (employment tribunals, in my case) know the dangers of over-reading non-verbal signals and being unduly influenced by them.
In my work for Assurety as a communication specialist, I directly deal with the physical symptoms of what is generally known as the fight-or-flight response (basically, the primeval resetting of your body in response to threat in order to be ready to fight or run away; neither of which, in my professional opinion, will get you very far in a court hearing). Unlike in presentation skills training, we need witnesses to be as still and focused as possible physically. There are techniques we teach which will counteract the worst effects of that response to a feeling of being in danger. But most effective of all is the fact that the witness is attending a training workshop which simulates the stages of the judicial process, chiefly the cross-examination.
If you appear in court, tribunal or arbitration never having set foot in one before or done any formal preparation, and find a barrister staring you down and asking you impertinent questions, one of our team sitting in the public area holding up a sign saying “remember to breathe” will not help you much. But if you’ve already been grilled by a real-life barrister, in the relatively safe environment of a training session, it’s a bit like being inoculated; when you encounter the real thing, your unconscious mind says “ah, I recognise this”, and the feeling of familiarity lowers the feeling of panic. Like an actor at the end of a period of rehearsal, you understand the context of what’s happening and you’re clear about your role in it.
The other advantage of the witness training ‘dry run’ is you can begin to develop helpful habits. Such clear pointers as “answer the question” will not work without practice; for most witnesses have spent their working lives trying to avoid the question and give evasive answers, so they need to practise repeatedly to embed a new way of working. Similarly, the need to keep one’s answers brief when being cross-examined is counter-intuitive: surely it’s best to give as much detail as possible to be helpful to the court? I’m afraid all that will happen is the judge will get RSI from extensive note taking and the barrister will scoop up your additional unasked-for details, repackage them, and hurl them back at you in the form of further intrusive questions.
So maybe we can rephrase my earlier question, “Who’d be a witness?” as “Who’d be an unprepared witness? Just a few hours of formal preparation in the hands of experienced experts makes a world of difference. Who, knows, you might even enjoy it!