Why Cross Examination is good for you
As a performance psychologist with lots of experience in sport I have learnt a lot about pressure and how to cope with it. Over the past 18 months I’ve been on a journey learning about the experience of being a witness and more specifically how being cross examined can be terrifying and it’s fair to say that my learning about performing pressure has been deepened by this.
Like most non-lawyers, my prior experience of the legal world was restricted to friends, colleagues and the legal programmes on TV. And as anyone involved in the legal sector will know, none of that is helpful in understanding what role the witness actually plays in court.
Being a witness is tough. Very tough. And is unlike anything else. The context is so familiar - using words to answer questions posed by another human, something we all do every day. But in reality it couldn’t be more different from a normal conversation. What other ‘conversations’ do we have when we can’t control the conversation, when we can’t ask a question and we certainly can’t walk away. My colleagues describe it as tennis, not chess. Just hit the ball back, don’t plan ahead. But in tennis you can try and win. You can hit the ball back with aggression, with skill and with tactical nous. None of this is available to you as a witness, all you can do is answer the question and take the hits. I think a hockey goalkeeper is more apt. It’s a position no-one in their right mind would want to do voluntarily. You can’t win, you can only lose and you need a lot of padding to protect yourself.
So what about the pressure? Well first you have the pre-trial pressure. The nerves, the anxiety, the playing out of scenarios, the sleepless nights. When we are preparing for something that really matters, with consequences, it hard. Its tense and it’s a battle. Yet as hard as this is as a witness, its familiar. The intensity may be more than most things we don’t look forward to, but its familiar territory.
The bit I’ve most learnt from and am most intrigued by is dealing with the heat of cross-examination. This heat is unlike anything else. First of all, you have the stakes, the consequences. Most witnesses I’ve worked with have a huge amount on the line, a lot to lose. Their finances, their family or their reputation. There isn’t much else in life that we care more for, that’s more important to us. And they could lose it all. In sport we have big moments, moments that determine if we take gold or come home empty handed. If we win the league or get relegated. We put at risk future earnings and reputation. But whilst we might fail to win something, we don’t have anything taken away from us.
Secondly, there is the court environment. The witness has probably never been in one before. It is also specifically set up for an adversarial battle between the claimant and the defendant and their lawyers. There is also the matter of a judge (the referee) that everyone has to be deferential to. It all takes place in an arena steeped in history and tradition. Finally, the witness has their role, their role as a hockey goalkeeper, playing a game they don’t really understand. They are asked questions by the opposing barrister and their responses are twisted, turned and skewed to paint a negative picture. A small mistake is taken to mean the witness is incompetent in all facets of life. A thin slice of reality is extrapolated to depict their whole character, their whole life. Ever been on a plane? Well, you can’t possibly care about the environment then. Ever embellished a truth? Well, you are a compulsive liar then.
Yet isn’t being a witness the easiest job in the courtroom? All they have to do is to answer the question. If they don’t know they say they don’t know. If they know, they just give the answer honestly. They don’t have to play any games or think ahead, that’s someone else’s job. All they need to do is answer the question. Why is this so hard? For me it boils down to the ultimate in distractions. Can they really just listen to and answer the question when there is so much at stake? When the environment is so unfamiliar and intimidating? When they can’t argue back? All of these things are simply distractions from their job of answering the question. As soon as they place some of our limited attention on any of those distractions, they lose focus on listening to and answering the question. And those distractions are compelling. That’s why it’s so hard.
So, why is this good for you? Well, isn’t this a metaphor for modern life, with all the distractions we have around us. A world in which our phone never stops giving us messages. Where our choices and behaviour effect our family and our career. Where we are judged by so many through social media platforms that we all use to show our best selves. And where we are a small player in a complex system. It’s easy to lose focus with those distractions. Yet our only choice is to make the right micro-choices. To trust that in time, if we will all make enough of the right micro-choices, we can achieve big things. To think clearly and make the best decision we can with the information we have. To focus on what matters to us, to shut out the noise and be in the moment. Our ability to do that is a critical skill in our modern world. Its arguably the critical skill. There is so much noise around us that if we can’t filter out what matters and what doesn’t, what’s important and what’s not, we aren’t going to succeed. And it’s getting harder.
The heat of cross examination tests this skill to the max, in a way that’s hard to replicate. It gives us practice at a skill which is critical for our success. As a witness you can feel powerless, feel like you have no control. But under the intense pressure of cross examination, if you can learn to shut out the noise, to simply listen to and answer the question, the benefits are so much wider than for you as a witness. You learn that you will always retain the ultimate in power, the power to choose your response, the power to focus on what matters. The power to be at your best.
Performance Psychologist and Head of Training.