Body language and credibility in court
Published 7:10 pm Monday, March 2, 2020
Testifying in front of a jury is one of the most stressful situations a person can experience. Witnesses, particularly a defendant or alleged victim, are under unforgiving scrutiny. Below are the most common ways our bodies can undermine what we actually say.
FIDGETING – One of the most classic body language signals of nervousness is fidgeting. This can be with our hands or our entire body. Jurors perceive these gestures as nervousness about what the witness is testifying about, rather than as simply public-speaking nerves. So, a witness who repeatedly plays with the microphone, talks with his hands, or cleans his glasses is perceived as either stalling to “think of an answer” or nervous because he is not telling the truth. Additionally, witnesses who rock back and forth or shift position are seen as uncomfortable about what they are saying, as are witnesses who play with their hair or jewelry, tap their nails on the table, crack their knuckles, or grip the edge of the table tightly.
Fidgeting can be controlled with practice, relaxation techniques, and just telling the truth. Telling the truth provides confidence. When we are confident, our bodies naturally communicate that confidence.
EYE CONTACT – Eye contact is one of the fundamental ways human beings relate to one another. Witnesses who avoid eye contact with the attorney or jury tend to be evaluated as less credible than those who give consistent, confident eye contact. Lack of eye contact, such as looking down and away, or having quick, darting eye movements, can be perceived by jurors as the witness being distracted, unengaged, or deceptive. Comparatively, witnesses who give direct eye contact are evaluated as confident, knowledgeable, open and engaging.
DEHYDRATION – In addition to maintaining eye contact, witnesses should be careful not to blink excessively. This physiological response is often the result of nervous witnesses experiencing dry eyes, causing them to blink to try to wet their eyes. But frequent blinking makes witnesses appear nervous and, worse, like they have something to hide. Another physiological response is dry mouth, which can cause witnesses to excessively clear their throats. This carries similar implications with the jury. While both are typically autonomic reactions that are difficult to control, drinking water and eliminating anything we take into our bodies that dehydrates us can help.
APPEARANCE / POSTURE – Jurors also evaluate a witness’s credibility by their appearance. A witness who has not shaved, dresses like they just got out of bed, and/or has poor hygiene sends the message to the jury that he really doesn’t care whether he is believed or not. Also, how he positions his body during questioning is critical. For example, if a witness leans back in his chair, jurors may perceive this posture as if the witness “doesn’t want to be there” or, in the case of a medical doctor or other professional, that he is arrogant. Similarly, a witness who is slouching or has hunched shoulders looks defensive, tentative, unknowledgeable, and worse; guilty.
HIDING IN THE WITNESS CHAIR –Witnesses should be careful not to seem as though they are intentionally blocking parts of their body from the view of the jury. For example, hands blocking the mouth, arms crossed, or body slanted away from the jury makes it appear as though they are trying to hide themselves from view, and consequently, jurors perceive them as less trustworthy. Witnesses can avoid these behaviors by trying to keep themselves open to the jury, with their hands relaxed on the table in front of them. This lets the jury know the witnesses aren’t hiding anything.
ANGER –When a person is challenged regarding whether he is telling the truth, a common response is anger. Outwardly expressing anger is perhaps the worst way a witness can destroy his credibility. Attorneys are trained to bring forth anger with some witnesses. If a defendant chooses to testify, his anger can completely undermine his credibility. The same is true for an alleged victim.
While some witnesses simply cannot control their body language, there are some things that can significantly improve the credibility of a witness:
1. Tell the truth. By being truthful, many of the above problems will disappear on their own because we tend to relax when being truthful.
2. Think about the questions from the lawyer. If the witness does not know the answer, he should say so. Creating an answer based on speculation will always lead to further problems during the rest of the questioning.
3. When making eye contact, keep it natural. Look the attorney in his eyes. It is also very effective to naturally look over at the jury and make eye contact with them while answering a question.
4. Open up your body in a confident manner. This shows strength and honesty.
5. Control your anger. By doing this, the frustration shifts from the witness to the questioning attorney. When an attorney gets frustrated, the jury picks up on it quickly and he loses credibility. Testifying, even for lawyers, is a very challenging task. However, if a witness is mindful that his body communicates more than his words, his testimony will be that much more credible.