EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the second in a series of stories dedicated to psychology and law.
CHARLESTON -- The Salt Lake Tribune recently published a list of "silly" questions asked by lawyers during trials, many of which nearly ended careers.
One noteworthy exchange caused an entire courtroom to erupt in laughter, much to the lawyer's (and his firm's) deep embarrassment:
Q: "Do you recall approximately the time you examined the body of Mr. Edington at the Rose Chapel?"
A: "It was in the evening. The autopsy started about 8:30 p.m."
Q: "And Mr. Edington was dead at that time, is that correct?"
A: "No, stupid, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy!"
Humiliating moments arise from simple slips of the tongue to more damaging behaviors, as in the case of the Durham, N.C., prosecutor who admitted that he rushed to accuse Duke lacrosse players of rape.
While some situations create snickering and others media mayhem, lawyers are left asking themselves an important question: Will I be able to survive this?
Clinical psychologist David Clayman analyzed what happens to the mind, body and spirit when a person becomes seriously embarrassed. He explained that biochemical surges result in an increased heart rate, sweating, facial flushing, nausea, muscle weakness, and fainting.
"Emotionally, one may feel upset, scared, anxious, or even depressed," Clayman said. "Many will anticipate bad things happening, and that develops into feelings of dread. After that, there is a desire to escape from that discomforting situation, and some individuals may actually try to avoid the setting or activity altogether because they fear another negative reaction. In doing so, these people actually undermine their own work progress by missing deadlines or procrastinating," he said.
This loss of confidence is escalated by the embarrassed person's racing thoughts, memory problems or sheer confusion, all of which is brought on by situational stress. Clayman stated that excessive worrying is crippling to someone in the legal profession, as the need to think clearly dictates a lawyer's daily routine.
If an embarrassing moment amplifies to utter havoc, a professional's image can be tarnished in ways that only a team of PR specialists can rehabilitate. When image consultants are called in to repair the credibility of a once-respected businessperson, they warn that quick fixes are out of the question.
"We, as human beings, form perceptions about other humans over time. This is the basis of reputation," began Skip Lineberg, chief creative officer for Maple Creative. "Think of it as one's accrued personal brand equity," he said.
Lineberg stated that if a person makes a major blunder, it equates to massive hit against his or her stature. He explained that it cannot be overcome though a press conference, nor will the perfectly written reaction statement in a press release wipe the slate clean. Instead, the public will watch with great caution as they decide whether to overlook or forgive the mistake.
If the perfect words will not overturn a predicament, Lineberg believes a threatened reputation is reconstructed through pure effort.
"As we've all heard, actions speak louder than words. Once a person as made the gargantuan gaffe, the best thing he or she can do is to consistently do good and do right," Lineberg said. "I would advise a client to adhere to the following ABC principles…apologize, be genuine, and show compassion."
In a scenario requiring non-verbal communication to soften the weight of a verbal debacle, Clayman believes the first thing a person should do is simply accept that an error was made. Coping, he said, starts with recognizing one's own foibles and then actively seeking avenues to re-establish trust. The hope is that audiences or colleagues will feel empathetic toward the suffering person and eventually forget that anything ever happened.
At least, that's the prayer of the lawyer who asked a witness, "Were you alone or by yourself?"
Brown is the managing member of and senior writer for The Write Word LLC. Once a legal marketing executive, she now works as a communications consultant, teaching courses in English grammar, business correspondence, public speaking, and professional etiquette. For more information, visit www.thewritewordllc.com.