Applying Witness Training Best Practices to the "It Depends" Answer

CSI - Courtroom Sciences Inc.

Witnesses frequently wrestle with responding to a question with a simple yes or no answer, as reality is rarely that straightforward. This is where the art of responding with "it depends," or its variations, comes into play. While this response tends to make some defense attorneys uncomfortable, there are circumstances in which "it depends" is the truthful and most accurate response.

However, the phrase "it depends" can be particularly nuanced, resulting in it potentially being either a legal lifeline or a perceived evasion tactic. Because of this, it’s essential to examine the psychological underpinnings that make it appropriate and, in many cases, the most effective approach. 

Why does "It depends" sometimes make defense attorneys uncomfortable?

Sometimes, the 'it depends' response can make defense attorneys uncomfortable if they feel like the witness is repeating the same answer. Additionally, advising witnesses to use this response requires defense counsel to help their witnesses identify hypothetical questions, which can be challenging without the proper training.  

The Truthfulness of "It Depends"

Responding with "it depends" may seem counterintuitive to some, but it aligns with the fundamental principle of truthfulness. At its core, the "it depends" response is often the most truthful answer a witness can provide, particularly if a situation genuinely depends on various factors.

Some defense attorneys may experience trepidation when witnesses repeatedly respond with "it depends." However, the key lies in recognizing that this variation maintains the same level of truthfulness as a direct "yes" or "no" response. Moreover, employing alternative phrases such as "that's not necessarily true in all situations" or "it depends on the full set of circumstances" adds a layer of verbal dexterity while maintaining the core message. This strategic variation prevents witnesses from sounding like a broken record, creating a perceptual advantage during deposition or trial.

While "it depends" can be a powerful tool in handling hypothetical and generalized questions, its application differs when facing factual inquiries. Responding with "it depends" to a straightforward factual question can be detrimental. As such, witnesses should be advised to provide unequivocal answers to factual queries, as evading such questions may raise concerns about credibility.

Navigating Pitfalls 

While "it depends" is a powerful tool, it does require finesse. Skillful plaintiffs' attorneys may attempt to exploit this response, pressing for more specifics. However, a well-trained witness can navigate these challenges effectively. Refusing to fall into the trap of answering overly broad follow-up questions by emphasizing the need for a specific context maintains control. It prevents the witness from inadvertently providing too much information.

One of the critical factors in choosing "it depends" lies in maximizing cognition. Witnesses benefit from a brief pause, termed "forcing cognition," lasting two to five seconds when faced with tough questions. This pause allows the witness to organize their thoughts and increases the statistical likelihood of providing an accurate response. On the other hand, longer explanations disorganize the answer and raise the risk of introducing inaccuracies. Witnesses should aim to maintain control and clarity through concise, thoughtful responses.

Applying a Nuanced Approach

Witness training goes beyond teaching the right words to say; it extends to managing perceptions and cognitive processes. Repeatedly giving the same answer, be it "yes," "no," or "it depends," can lead to the perception of evasion. To counter this, witnesses are encouraged to vary their responses, maintaining truthfulness while avoiding the appearance of a scripted or evasive approach. The key is often to fine-tune the responses, adapting the language to what feels natural for the witness, ensuring a more genuine and less rehearsed delivery.

The effectiveness of the "it depends" strategy frequently becomes apparent during witness testimony. Rarely do jurors express dissatisfaction with witnesses utilizing this approach, provided consistency and credibility are maintained. The key lies in effective witness training, ensuring truthful responses are delivered with conviction and clarity.

Mastering responding with "it depends" requires a delicate balance of truthfulness, strategic variations, and understanding cognitive processes. The goal is not to evade but to navigate the legal landscape with poise and authenticity. Witness training that incorporates the nuances of this approach can help ensure that witnesses navigate complex questioning while maintaining credibility.

At Courtroom Sciences, our psychology-based witness training program will allow a witness to be simultaneously effective while preventing them from making errors that can derail your case. Speak with one of our experts to get started. 

Key Takeaways

●  Responding with "it depends" or its variations is an effective way for witnesses to provide honest answers, particularly when faced with questions based on hypotheticals. 

●  Adapting language to the specific witness can help prevent scripted responses, enhancing the overall credibility of the testimony.

●  While "it depends" is a powerful tool for hypothetical questions, it should be avoided when facing straightforward factual inquiries.

●  The ‘it depends’ strategy can help witnesses navigate complex questioning while maintaining credibility.

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