It is natural to be nervous and anxious when called to testify in your divorce or paternity case. No one likes sitting in the witness chair. It is not fun. I have assembled these fundamental tips to help you know what to expect and reduce the fear of the unknown. These tips can help your testimony go much smoother. Additionally, following these tips might even help get you on and off the witness stand a little faster. So, let’s get started!
Listen to The Question
This is much harder than it sounds.
The first thing you should do is carefully listen to each question. Make sure you fully understand the question before you answer. If you don’t understand the question, say you don’t understand. Then, ask the attorney to repeat or rephrase the question. Never answer a question that you do not understand.
There is nothing wrong with asking that a question be repeated or rephrased. But, if you do it too often, it may look like you are evasive. So, if you don’t understand, say so. But don’t overdo it or try to use this as a stall technique because the Judge will quickly sniff that out.
Answer Only The Question Asked
I like to do an exercise with people when preparing for a hearing. I will ask:
“Do you know the time?”
Most people will say, “Yes, it’s 9:30.”
But that wasn’t the question! The question was, “Do you know the time?” not “What time is it?” See the difference? The proper answer is either yes or no.
Remember, there is a difference between hearing the question and actually listening to the question. If the question is “Do you know the time?” Don’t tell what time it is or try to explain how to build a clock. Just answer the question that was asked. Volunteering information that was not asked may tell the other side something they don’t know. Even worse, this can have a snowball effect that will lead to more questions meaning you will be on the witness stand longer than necessary.
Take a Second
Take a second to think before speaking. Your parents probably have said this at some point during your childhood—the same thing in court. You will notice after answering a few questions that there is a natural rhythm and flow. It’s hard to describe, but you will be able to feel it while you are on the stand. Try to stay in that rhythm.
Take a second to make sure you understand the question, but don’t overdo it. There is a fine line between taking a couple of seconds to start your answer and taking too long. When someone thinks too long before answering, it makes people think you are trying to think up a B.S. answer on the fly. It may not be the case at all, but it can look that way. Again, we can practice this before the hearing if you would like more help with this.
If You Don’t Know The Answer, Say So!
“I don’t know” is an acceptable answer, but ONLY if you genuinely don’t know the answer. Simple enough.
One of the most common things you will see people do is to start answering a question before the attorney has finished asking the question. The reason is that the witness is guessing or assuming what they think the attorney is asking. Don’t guess! Wait for the attorney to ask the question, listen to the question, and then answer the question asked. Don’t answer what you think the attorney is trying to ask. Answer what was actually asked.
Look The Part
Court is serious business. The way you present yourself makes a difference. If you show up looking like you are headed to the beach, it will impact your case. Show that you take it seriously and dress professionally. You don’t need to go out and buy a suit if you don’t already own one, but wear a shirt and tie. Throw on a jacket, and that’s even better.
Don’t Commit To A Something Unless You Are Positive
Try to avoid saying this like “always” and “never” unless you are 100% positive about your answer. Usually, an attorney is not going to ask you a question unless they already know the answer. So, the attorney is asking the question for a reason. They want to see how you are going to answer or they are trying to get a reaction.
Unless you are positive (things like birthdays, anniversaries, etc) it is acceptable to say approximately when it comes to dates. For other questions, its better to say “to the best of my recollection” or “that’s all I can remember at this moment” than to make a bold statement like “That never happened.” Unless of course you are absolutely positive.
Once you commit yourself to a specific answer, if you are wrong, this will then be used to attack your credibility. A common question might be, “Have you ever told a lie?” I don’t know anyone who can honestly say no. However, some people will say no. Almost always what follows is a question something like “So, are you as sure about this answer as you are about the rest of your testimony?’
Tell The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth
There is a saying that the coverup is worse than the crime. Just tell the truth. Don’t try to play semantics, outsmart the other attorney, or game the system. The court will respect a truthful answer even if that answer is embarrassing or hard to admit.
If you know that you messed up, I think it is better to own it and accept responsibility. Trying to B.S. the Judge is far more damaging than simply saying, “I screwed up.”
Don’t Make It Harder Than It Needs to Be
I’m going to say the same thing twice, it’s that important. One of the most common things people do is to start answering a question before the attorney has finished asking. Don’t to that! You may guess wrong and answer a different question. Besides looking silly, you will be making your testimony harder than it needs to be. Do it too many times and the Judge is probably going to say something. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
If you do everything else on this list you can avoid this problem. All you have to do is:
- Listen to the question.
- Answer only the question asked
- Take your time.
- If you don’t know, say so.
- Never guess.
- Don’t commit unless you are positive
- Look the part
- Always tell the truth.
- Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
I won’t sugarcoat this: You will be nervous, especially if you have never had to testify before. Testifying will not be fun and will not be something you will want to do again anytime soon. This is normal. I don’t know that it’s even possible to ever be completely prepared because there can always be surprises. Control the things that you can control and prepare the best you can. Ask questions. Plan in advance for all the known issues and know how you will answer. Knowing what to expect will serve to reduce the stress of the unknown.
These tips, or any suggestions contained in any of my posts, are NOT a substitute for having a good attorney represent you. Always hire an attorney, there are no exceptions.
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