Welcome to the Hot Seat
Body Language Tips for the EM Physician About to Testify
By Patti Wood MA, CSP and Douglas Segan MD, JD, FACEP
You are sitting in a hard chair on a raised platform being asked question after question by a hard hitting attorney while a courtroom full of people watch your every move. Welcome to the hot seat! As a physician testifying as a defendant or serving as an expert witness, your experience on the stand can be daunting. Understanding how to use your nonverbal communication to feel confident and credible on the stand will make a difference in the outcome.
Here are the keys to ensuring that your nonverbal communication conveys the same message of impeccable integrity as your words.
It is important to know that how you hold your body can actually change how you feel. You can influence how you look and feel on the stand by consciously controlling your nonverbal cues.
Under stress the limbic brain normally makes us freeze, flee, fight or faint or give up. Your body may react by freezing in place, appear to be fleeing by pulling your body back, or folding your limbs in to look small. Other reactions to stress may be to become tense and angry, going limp and giving up. You can take steps to reduce those stress responses and increase your credibility.
You want to be aware of the dance between you and the opposing counsel, instead of being reactive to the opposing team’s attorney. Use the following tips to be an effective credible witness.
You want to look powerful, like a true expert, but not appear arrogant. Instead of going still and getting small, take up space and get big. When you need a shot of confidence put your arms on the armrest of your chair, or stretch out your feet a bit. Research says that women on the stand tend to perch, on the edge of the seat arching their backs, making them look less powerful. Men tend to slouch, relying more on the backrest, making them appear disrespectful. Purposefully vary your position to be in control, but when you feel stressed, get big.
Imagine that there are “windows” on the front of your body, the windows of the knees, pelvis, heart, mouth, eyes, and palms of the hands. These body windows can be open or closed. You want to keep your windows open to look honest and unafraid. The most important window for credibly is the palms of the hands. The limbic brain of the viewer senses danger and dishonesty when the palms of someone’s hands are hidden. Keep your hands open and in view on the table or the arms of the chair. Gesture normally, but don’t use sharp, cutting or poking motions that can be read as symbolic weapons.
When you’re confident and honest your gestures move up, your head comes up, your shoulders come up and back, you sit and move in a way that directs your energy upward.
People who are afraid and or are lying have difficulty moving and staying up.
When people are nervous, they tend to either move a lot or freeze. Here’s a trick: when you’re in the thick of the most difficult questions, and want to achieve the highest levels of cognition, place both feet firmly on the ground slightly apart. This placement
actually makes it easier to utilize both hemispheres of the brain — the rational and the creative-emotional. If you feel yourself freeze, move your feet apart and/or forward to feel strong.
Lean into It
We tend to pull back when we are fearful or offended by a question. Lean forward as you listen to show you are interested and confident. You can lean forward with your head, your upper torso, or your whole body to show you are connecting to what the lawyer is saying and you are not afraid. Lean in when you are being questioned by your team to show respect. But don’t overdo it, you’re not trying to “get in their face.” So don’t lean forward quickly or aggressively, just aim for gentle timely leans.
Speak with Strength
Everyone, but especially women, should be sure that their voices stay strong until the end of each sentences. Going up high in pitch at the end of your sentences makes you sound unsure of yourself. Practice answering questions with a confident voice going down in pitch, steady and strong in volume, to the end of your sentences.
Match Your Movement and Your Words
Make sure your gestures and movements match what you are saying. If you say “That is accurate” and shake your head “no” the jury will believe your body language, not your words. Be careful of being too scripted or automatic. If your emotion and facial expressions and gestures do not match you seem inauthentic.
Keep Your Hands Away From Your Face
Be careful of showing “stress cues.” When we are feeling stressed the nerve endings fire at the tip of the nose, edge of the ears, around the mouth, and eyes. You may have an urge to touch or rub your face. Don’t! It makes you look uncertain or dishonest. If you need to comfort yourself, briefly place a hand on your leg out of view which will help you feel anchored.
Mind Your Mouth
The mouth is the source of truth and lies. Avoid licking your lips or pressing your lips tightly together. Keep hydrated and keep your lips relaxed.
Giving a deposition or testifying in a trial is an experience that is part of being an EM physician. Knowing the nonverbal messages that people use to ascertain whether you are telling the truth will help ensure that you are perceived as being the credible witness that you are.
Ms. Patti Wood, MA, CSP is a body language consultant and professional speaker, and the author of eight books, including “Success Signals Understanding Body Language” and “SNAP Making the Most of First Impressions Body Language and Charisma.” She is interviewed by national media every week, including CNN, FOX NEWS, The Today Show, The History Channel, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Psychology Today. You can contact her at Patti@PattiWood.net
Dr. Sagan is an emergency physician and an attorney based in Woodmere, New York. He can be reached at DougSegan@Yahoo.com.