We’d been talking for hours. I’d let the night turn from reasonable hour to unreasonable hour, because the conversation was enthralling, when I suddenly felt the strangest urgency to leave. Immediately. I apologized to my college friend and let her know I needed to get going right away. Within minutes, I was out the door and driving home, passing under stripes of light cast by the street lamps. If I hadn’t left exactly then, I wouldn’t have seen it.
Less than a block from home, a car pulled right then jerked left in front of me. It stopped at the red light ahead, and a female passenger opened the door and started to get out when she was pulled forcefully back in and the door slammed shut next to her. There were some furtive movements, some shoving and pulling. A couple teasing each other, maybe? I reasoned.
The light turned green and I followed the car up the road and to the left near my house. I lost sight of the car just before the hill. As I reached the top of the hill, there in the middle of the suburban intersection was the female, lying on the ground, motionless. The car was stopped next to her with the passenger door wide open. The driver was out of his door and walking around the car to where the female lay.
Shaking, I memorized the license plate and called 911 as I drove past and around the next bend. I was later asked to write a statement, which I did. When the prosecutor asked me to come in to prepare to be a witness in the trial, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life.
Fast forward many years and I now use this story when working with witnesses to illustrate the most important lesson of giving testimony in court.
What do you think the most important rule of giving testimony is? Most will invariably answer honesty. You are, after all, sworn under oath to tell the truth. But there is something more important than honesty: accuracy.
To be honest is to be devoid of deceit, meaning you don’t intend to say anything false. To be accurate is to be devoid of falsity, meaning you actually don’t say anything false. Deceit is just a matter of motive. To be free of it doesn’t mean you have done any due diligence to examine your own errors of memory, implicit bias, or knowledge. People can say perfectly honest things that are still false. To be accurate means you either completely understand the thing you are saying or you are able to specifically explain what you do and don’t know about it. (Spoiler: the second option is easier).
When I gave a statement about that night, I wrote that the man put the female back in the car and began driving away. I had no idea that this contradicted other witness statements or that it was physically unlikely (since police arrived with the man still right there in the suburban intersection) until the prosecutor gently pushed back.
“Are you sure you saw him put her back in the car?”
“Yes,” I spoke confidently.
“You’re positive? Think back.”
“Yes,” I spoke again.
“Because we have other witness statements that he was never able to get her back in.”
Confronted with the new information. I thought about it again, pictured it in my mind carefully. He was right. “You know, you are right. I don’t know why I wrote that.”
I didn’t know these people. I had no reason to make this up. Except for human emotion. All I can surmise now is that perhaps my fear of the man knowing I was a witness and following me, and my human need for narratives to have beginnings and ends, both materialized into a memory I didn’t actually have.
Since then, I have learned that accuracy has many uses in and out of court. Accuracy can improve almost any conversation, deescalating conflict, keeping the lines of communication open, and decreasing one’s likelihood of putting their foot in their mouth.
But how can we be accurate all the time? The trick is not being magically able to know all things. All you have to do is be able to describe your own experience with things using words that appropriately and specifically describe the experience or the likelihood of its interpretation. Take my explanation two paragraphs up, for example. Had I removed the word “perhaps,” I would have been making an empirical statement about my own mind that I don’t actually have empirical evidence of. But all I have to do is add in “perhaps,” and it is suddenly accurate. There really is a chance that my brain was doing precisely what I stated there. And a chance is all I need for that statement to, perhaps, be accurate.
Here are some of my favorite accuracy phrases:
“I think…because…” or “I don’t think so…because”
[Husband] “Weren’t you going to pick up the dry cleaning today? I really needed my suit for tomorrow”
[Potentially Inaccurate] “No. You said you were going to do it.”
[Accurate] “I don’t think so, because I remember a conversation last week when you said something about needing to go by there anyway to pick up your prescription at the pharmacy next door, right?”
“It seems like,” “Sometimes,” and “often” as opposed to “always” and “is/are”
[Potentially Inaccurate] Republicans always vote along party lines, even when the candidates views are actually aligned with Democrat values.
[Accurate] It seems like Republicans often vote along party lines, even when the candidate’s views seem to be aligned with Democrat values.
“I feel/believe…because I read/watched/listened to…and these facts struck me as reasonable/logical: [list facts]”
[Potentially Inaccurate] “Anyone who doesn’t wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic is selfish.”
[Accurate] “I feel like many of those who refuse to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic are selfish, because I have read the updated CDC guidelines as well as [article name] in [article source] and it explained [actual information from the source], which leads me to believe that many people know these things but just aren’t willing to do it.”
Speak from experience;
If you don’t know an actual number or statistic, just reference your memory or understanding of it, complete with qualifying statements;
Rather than stating your conclusions about something you heard or read, talk about the path that brought you to that conclusion.
There is a time and place to use bold, strong, hyperbolic language, of course. In my opinion, our everyday conversations are rarely that place.
Why do we get in fights with our loved ones over religion and politics? Pay attention the next time such a conversation comes up. I think you’ll find that the language in those fights tends to be inflammatory because it is imprecise and inaccurate, and this inflammatory language is often what ignites the fight. It shuts people down. It raises their emotion and clouds their judgment.
So when you find yourself in the position of being called to testify in court or the kitchen, remember that honesty is good, but accuracy is great.
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