Seven Communication Truths from the Courtroom
I recently had the opportunity to perform my civic duty as a juror. While the timing was inconvenient and the case not all that interesting, the experience provided a great perspective on the dramatic impact of strong communication and meeting facilitation skills.
The case was relatively short, and there were only three witnesses called. The entire trial lasted just over two hours, yet jury deliberations took nearly four hours and ran into a second day. It should have been shorter and easier based on the evidence presented.
I realized that several of the communication challenges we regularly observe with lawyers were evident in the courtroom. The trial was a good reminder of the importance of those communication truths whether you’re in a courtroom, a client presentation or a firm meeting. Here’s what I observed:
- The prosecutor made his opening and closing statements without the use of notes. The defense attorney held his notes and read from them during the opening but only occasionally referred to them during his closing. All jurors agreed both had performed well, but the defense attorney’s closing statement was greatly improved and far more convincing than his opening when he seemed ill-prepared. The use of notes is fine but only if used to confirm details, not when used as a crutch.
- The prosecution’s witnesses were two police officers involved in the incident, which occurred in 2014. The first prosecution witness did not refer to notes and struggled to recall details. His grammar and posture were poor and he rarely made direct eye contact with the jurors. The second witness referred to the arrest report, tied each of his actions to standard procedures, sat up straight, made eye contact with the jurors and came across as very professional. During deliberations, the jurors gave significantly more credence to the second officer’s testimony despite having an equivalent level of experience in the field. Professionalism and preparation count.
- Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney missed countless opportunities to “follow the trail” and ask follow-up questions that would have given jurors better information. They appeared to be more focused on getting through their prepared questions than practicing “Active Listening.” (Read our blog post on active listening, which includes paying attention to body language and listening with intent, here.) As I mentioned, the content of the trial was not all that interesting or dramatic. They clearly failed to observe that jurors and the judge were also frequently stifling yawns. Asking relevant follow-up questions, reading and adapting to the audience and summarizing critical points keeps interest and attention.
- Deliberations began after 3:30 pm when jurors were tired from sitting all day, bored from the dry content of the trial and ready to go home. Be careful of scheduling important discussions late in the day or letting meetings run too long.
- Because of the late start time, the foreman was quickly selected. In order to attempt a fast resolution, we launched right into discussions and did not have jurors introduce themselves. The diverse group included professionals, warehouse workers, stay-at-home moms, hospitality workers and retirees. Looking back, it was a mistake to skip introductions. During introductions, people learn about each other and find connections that allow for greater rapport and trust to be built more quickly.
- The prosecutor used very few visual aids during the trial, and as a result the jurors were unable to grasp the general layout of the scene. Also, during deliberations, we realized that merely discussing the strength of the evidence was not enough. Instead, we utilized the whiteboard in the room to create lists of the evidence and causes for reasonable doubt. The visual depiction helped the undecided jurors weigh both sides and helped us come to a resolution much more quickly. People process information in very different ways. Using different communication styles, multiple presentation formats and group participation will help provide greater clarity and engagement.
- As jurors became more comfortable with each other, most dropped their guard and began to share their life stories that shaped their views on the case. The more vulnerable and honest they became, the more they began to trust each other and respond to other viewpoints. People learn from and relate to each other through life experiences shared through stories.