Persuasion Matters

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Jury Selection and Reality TV: The Need for Acceptance

My old boss use to say, “The #1 fear is rejection, and the #1 need is acceptance.”  Makes perfect sense, and I think it translates to every situation, every age and every dynamic.  I mean, really.  Who likes to be rejected?  I certainly don’t.

Science Daily posted an article about this very phenomenon.  A psychologist from the University of Kentucky (DeWall) went so far as to liken the dynamic to reality television shows. The need for acceptance and fear of rejection scream loudly at television audiences each week during American Idol, The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars and even “The Donald’s” business-based reality show, The Apprentice. The fear of rejection from the viewing public is quite obvious (who wants to be voted off the show?), but let’s not forget about rejection from within the social groups that naturally develop on the show.

This made me wonder:  How is jury selection different from a reality television show?  In many ways, it’s not.  Both jurors and contestants are vying for acceptance among peers, perceived group leaders and decision-makers.  Members of both groups fear saying the wrong thing or being perceived as somehow inadequate or “less than.”  Both jurors and contestants modify their conduct and speech for the situation, and they are prepared to filter their interactions as needed.  And both jurors and reality TV show contestants– at the heart of it all– fear rejection.

Jurors absolutely, positively must feel safe and accepted during the jury selection process.

It’s so important to remember where they are coming from and how they feel as they are herded into the courtroom.  They are forced to take off work, find daycare for their kids, travel to an unfamiliar part of town and sit for hours in a sterile courthouse environment.  Jurors are told where to sit, who to talk to, when to eat, and they are asked to raise their hand to speak.  They are basically stripped of their freedoms, and in some ways, treated like a child.  And on top of all that?  We expect them to share personal information about themselves in front of a group of utter strangers.

If jurors don’t feel accepted, they will begin to withhold their feedback altogether or they will modify their responses to be more “mainstream.”  Certainly not ideal for you or your client.  The most effective voir dire is one that fosters a sense of acceptance and respect for jurors.  Jurors must feel safe enough to admit bias or prejudice, to talk about sensitive issues and to volunteer feelings that might be politically incorrect or against the norm.

Promoting an environment of safety is easier than it sounds, although it does take practice.  Here are a few basic tips:

  1. Every case benefits from a written supplemental jury questionnaire, but in cases involving sensitive subjects (sexual assault, psychological history, medical history, or experience with crime or drugs) they are even more important.  Jurors are much more likely to share personal information on paper than orally in front of strangers.
  2. Be yourself and talk like a friend, not a lawyer.  Leave the legalese at home.  Jurors cannot identify with legal jargon, and it creates a greater distance between you and the panel.  Use everyday language (but avoid any hint of condescension).
  3. Explain to jurors that all answers are good answers and that voir dire is not a quiz.  There are no right or wrong answers, only honest ones.  Let them know that you encourage them to “tell it like it is,” and to leave their social filters in the hallway.  In the courtroom, every answer– whether it’s a commonly held belief or not– is a welcome and appreciated answer.  And truly believe it when you say it.
  4. Respect jurors’ need for privacy.  Let the panel know you appreciate the stressful situation they are in, and that some questions might be a little too personal to answer aloud in front of a group.  Rather than withhold the information, encourage jurors to let you (or the bailiff or judge) know that there is an issue that needs to be discussed in private.  Comments shared up at the bench are every bit as valuable as those shared in the group.
  5. Walk the talk and truly accept all answers.  Period.  Do not try to convince the juror who gives you an answer that you don’t like that he is wrong.  Do not try to change his mind.  He feels what he feels, and to try to convince him otherwise is a blatant rejection of his feeling and a waste of precious time.  Accept it, thank him for his candor and move on.
  6. Use humor when appropriate.  A little humor can lighten the mood, make the situation less stressful, and cause jurors to perceive you as more human.  By building a strong rapport with jurors, you can foster a more welcoming environment… which often results in greater self-disclosure.  Don’t be a jokester, but if there is a candid moment, laugh with the jury (but never at the jury!).
At the end of the day, we all have a need for acceptance and a sense of belonging.   When jurors are gathered in a courtroom amongst strangers and officers of the court, their sense of psychological and emotional safety is diminished.  By recognizing this need and fostering an environment of mutual respect and acceptance during the voir dire process, you can minimize the fears associated with self-disclosure and rejection.

And a less fearful juror is typically a more talkative juror.

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