I spent my Tuesday morning at the Santa Monica Superior Court. Current Judge and Former Mayor James K. Hahn was presiding over the traffic trials that day. With my June 28 cell phone usage details printout neatly tucked away in a business folder, I was professionally attired and ready to demonstrate that I wasn’t texting while driving that day.
As someone who studies and speaks on the impact of verbal and nonverbal communication, the courtroom provided me with an insider’s view into the process of human language and behavior. Most noticeable were the court officers. Uniformed and armed, their body language sent a clear message of power. Their eyes were sizing and measuring all the defendants who entered and filled the seats of the courtroom, but they were intentionally avoiding eye contact and speaking over people’s heads when addressing them individually and collectively. A woman on crutches asked if she could elevate her leg, and the officer responded in a chastising tone not to put her feet up when the judge walks in.
Observing the facial expressions and body language of my fellow defendants that morning, it was plain to see that they feared, but didn’t respect, the commanding officer. A few times fellow officers shuffled in and out of the courtroom, and the same officer was audibly and casually joking with them. The stark contrast between his communication with his peers and with the defendants created an intentional chasm; one that was clearly noted and resented by the evident eye rolls, disgruntled groans and sarcastic sighs.
Then in walks the judge, who is robed and elevated, but kind and comfortable in his demeanor and approach. His authority was evident and his leadership respected. When he called me up to face my prosecuting officer, he was explaining and exemplifying expectations rather than barking orders. I mirrored the judge’s non-verbals, which came naturally and authentically to me, and while admittedly nervous, I explained that I turned off a notification sound in an assertive and polite tone, and asked the more aggressive-sounding officer clarifying questions in a calm voice that shed light on the wasteful confrontation.
The officer didn’t make eye contact with me, but I made sure to turn my face and body towards him when he spoke. I knew the judge was listening to him but watching me. I never even needed to present my text log — my manner of communication sufficed.
Not guilty of texting — but two mornings lost on arraignment and trial because of the appearance of wrongdoing — which again, is a reminder of the powerful impact of non-verbal communication and behavior.
Helpful Take-Away Tools:
- Respect is a two-way street. When we treat others respectfully, we’re more likely to be respected by them.
- Eye contact and listening go hand in hand. Look people in the eyes when you want them to truly listen to you, and make eye contact when others are speaking to show you’re paying attention and that you care.
- Power and authority are not the same, just like aggressive and assertive communication are not equal. It’s more effective to express yourself positively and directly in a manner that allows everyone to keep their self-respect.
Lee Broekman is an author, professor, trainer and coach. Her company Organic Communication, brings interactive, never boring, always edifying presentations and programs — focused on communication, collaboration and innovation — to your firm or organization.
Find her latest book Successful (Happy) Lawyering on