It seems like every witness I helped prepare for testimony last month was angry – which got in the way of both how they approached preparing to testify and their actual testimony.
Each witness was challenged by not being able to get past his or her negative emotions and dive into preparation in an open, responsive, positive way. Until we pinpointed the source, it was impossible to get our witnesses to listen, absorb our comments, effectively execute their homework and evolve into reliable, positive, integrated, connected witnesses.
On the stand, unresolved anger is one of the most common and destructive challenges for a witness because it makes one less likely to listen to the question, develop a thoughtful response, follow the rules of testimony and stay in control. Someone who looks or appears angry is unattractive, misunderstood and in the end seems untrustworthy. There sometimes is a way to channel hot emotions into a more useful response such as righteous indignation, but that technique really must be confined to a particular line of questioning, and cannot blanket the full extent of the testimony.
Anger comes from so many sources within each person that it is tricky to identify the emotional source. It can hide in a long held belief or be triggered from a family character trait or some other historical circumstance. The anger also may come from current events related or unrelated to the litigation.
I have certainly been challenged with witnesses who are not only going through a trial but also a family crisis – divorce, for instance. Or the witness may just be responding to the fact of being sued or wronged with feelings of betrayal, humiliation, or being misunderstood. Finally, anger in the preparation room may be rooted in the client’s belief that his/her lawyer doesn’t believe the client or resents the seemingly meaningless, arduous or objectionable litigation process.
Our first order of business in preparing angry witnesses is to spend the first chunk of time talking about their past, their family, where they were raised, their current situation, and why they chose their line of work. I touch on the five core values and beliefs in this conversation: shame, pride, anger, fear and most importantly, joy.
In essence, I try to find out what brings the witness joy in his/her life and I watch their physical response during this chat. Then as we shift our discussion to the matter at hand, I watch as that relaxed, connected self turns rigid, agitated, or vulnerable. This is a start. I look for an opportunity to apply this insight into the prep.
And at the right moment, I address the witness’s anger directly and try to replace it with a more positive core belief or value. Testimony at its best comes from a place of integrated connectedness, relaxation and speaking truth (not “The Truth,” but what is true for the witness).
Bringing the witness away from his or her understandable anger and to a place of self-confidence is the first step in witness prep.
September 1 2016