To somewhat of a less sickening extent, there are those educational "fair" hearings to defend children against school districts that just don't know when to give up. They are less sickening to me because my kids usually win (but not because the adults are well-intentioned). The good news is that the last one of those I testified in was way back in 2006. I like to think that districts have learned that they cannot overcome the extensive data we've collected or their history of educational neglect and mismanagement. Once a school district attorney actually reads the report and realizes that they cannot defend the district, they settle.
I've learned some things from those hours "in the box" that ended up working quite well for parenting, in the work place, for the marriage and being in the post office, the grocery store, at the zoo, on a plane...just being in the world at large.
Tips from the witness stand
1. There's a difference between a fact and the truth. A fact is a true piece of information. Therein lies the difference between the truth and a fact. A fact is only a piece of information, not the whole picture. Merriam-Webster defines the truth as "the quality or state of being true". Think of the 116,516 American troops who died during World War I. That number takes on a whole different meaning when you know that 60% of those who died did not succumb to combat wounds, but to the Spanish flu. Fact: 116,516 lives. Truth: The Spanish flu was deadlier than warfare.
When an attorney starts the questioning with, "Isn't it a fact, Dr. McCulloch, that..." I know they are working hard to limit the jury/judge from hearing the whole truth. I always answer "No" to which they respond, in usually a very strained voice, "NO?" Pompously, they go on to remind me that I could be charged with perjury. I just sit there...Advantage, Claudia. They fumble about and decide on their strategy. They ask again in a vain attempt to dissolve my resolve, but nope, ain't happening. I respond that while the fact might be true, it is out of context of the whole truth. Then, they ask me to explain and it is then that I can tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me, G-d. Advantage, Justice,
When people insist on focusing on the facts, look out, the truth may be getting lost in the "data". Beware of this strategy and give yourself some time to noodle the situation before making any decisions.
2. Take your time in answering. Words are important. They can have a lasting effect. Chose them wisely. I am likely to have said this on previous posts, but decades ago, I modified a familiar saying...Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will break your heart. That whole "do unto others" concept applies here. Would you like to hear your words aimed at you? Can you live with the consequences of your words? Is it completely necessary to be that snarky? Is this who you want to be? Is this who you want others to think you are? Words take on lives of their own and will likely to be used against you. If your comments are unnecessary, hurtful, unkind, critical or otherwise ugly, keep them behind your teeth.
3. Fully understand the question before you respond. If you make assumptions, you're gonna get yourself into trouble. Before you answer, ask yourself, "Am I being asked to do something, offer an opinion, or just listen?"
I was testifying in a trial where the prosecutor kept asking me a question that could not be answered truthfully because of the way she asked it. Mind you, she's an attorney and not an educational psychologist, so Advantage Claudia. She could have done her job more competently and spoke with me before I took the stand to find out what I know, but she didn't. Anyway, we kept going back and forth and I kept stating that I could not "truthfully answer the question the way you are asking it". Finally, she said, "Dr. McCulloch, if you were me, how would you ask the question?" Really??? I responded, "Well, Mrs. Smith (fictitious name), I can't do your job and mine, too." OMG...I thought the bailiff was going to have to stand next to me for my own safety. She as so enraged and aggressive the judge admonished her to dial it back.
Clarify what your child, spouse, co-worker, boss, state trooper, etc., wants to know before you launch into whatever it is you want to say ("negative listening"). Remember that story that went around a long while ago about a little boy who asked his daddy where he came from and dad thought, "OK, here we go. I'm ready for this!" and he launched into his well-prepared presentation of the "birds and the bees". When he was done, the gobsmacked boy responded, "Well, Jimmy is from Cleveland and I wanted to know where I came from." Ooops!
4. Make sure you are both talking about the same thing. On one occasion, a district attorney wanted to charge me with perjury because she referred to my clients as "cases" and I refused to use that term. They are not "cases". She couldn't handle it, but the judge made her use my term.
Go ahead, ask for clarification or definitions from your kids, spouse, mother-in-law, IRS auditor! Weed means something very different today than when I was a wee one and my brothers were "required" to pick weeds as punishment. Just as in our time, the vocabulary of teens and young adults changes quite quickly, but now, their lexicon spreads with warp speed because of instant communication technology. Just think about how words have different meanings now...viral, hook up, text, crash, web. We now have so many new words...goggle, ginormous, laptop, hard drive, sexting...
5. The "ballpark" answer is not the truth. And, here I am again, in the "box" and I am unable to answer both specifically and truthfully to the attorney's question. After some give and take, he says, "Just give me a ballpark answer". Now, before I tell you what happens next, I have to tell you that it is, at all times, necessary to take into consideration that giving only a partial answer may not serve the truth, may not serve justice. For me, it's the complete story or you don't get one. You can't shop for truth the way you can shop for facts. I stand my ground and let the judge decide if s/he wants to hold me in contempt. I responded, "When I raised my hand several hours ago and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I didn't hear anything about 'ballpark' truth". He simply stood there, looked at me, turned around, sat down, threw his notes on the table with a noise of disgust and said, "I'm done with this witness". Yeah, you're right. You're done.
6. Know when to stop talking. OK, this one is tough for me because I want to "explain everything", but I don't while I am in the "box". Saying too much might cause more harm than good. That's true for "real life". This whole "over-talking" dynamic is just such a girl thing. John Gray, Ph.D., wrote the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and he addressed our different communication styles based on male-female brains. Men want the broad strokes and women want to focus on details. Just think of kids as men, they only want the broad strokes, too. Over-talking causes them to bail out and tune out.
7. Be prepared. Know what you are talking about. If your kid, boss, spouse, loan officer surprises you with a request or a scenario you know nothing about, stop in your tracks. Don't bluff your way through. You'll be sorry. In the "box", it's OK to say that you don't know. When I am the expert witness, it is expected that I know everything. My ego tells me that I "should" know everything, but no one can know it all and to act otherwise is arrogant, stupid and compromises your credibility and your reputation. It the attorney decides to be snarky about it, I just let it ride. I don't respond. The attorney doesn't earn points with the court by being an arse.
Learn what you need to know to offer an intelligent response. Again, you do not have to answer immediately! You have both the right and the obligation to participate meaningfully in a conversation. Be prepared. Know your subject. If you try to fake it, your kid will know (everyone will know) and your reputation will be damaged. As a "side effect", you'll train your kid to be well-informed before starting a discussion with you! I'm reminded of Mark Twain's quote, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt". This quote is a version of Proverbs 17:28: "Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding".
8. Keep your emotions in check. The trauma physicians I know tell me that they "check their own pulse" on the way to an emergency just as they were taught. So, check your pulse and your ego. Don't take anyone else's behavior personally. You know who you are and you know your intentions. You also know that getting emotionally involved by defending and explaining yourself instead of focusing on the facts/truth will not yield positive results.
It's really tough to be "in the box" and "on display". Being personally and professionally attacked over and over again is a challenge. It's so public and it's so "on the record". Ugh. I find that the less I react, the more vicious the process until it is clear that I won't take the bait and then, it's over. It's called extinction. When there is no reward, the behavior stops. Hold your emotions in check and watch the results. Remember this when others (your kids!) engage you aggressively.
You know the drill. You get good at what you practice. So, practice being "in the box" because, honestly, even though you are not in a courtroom, you are most certainly "in the box".
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