Expert Testimony and Change

Monday, January 10th, 2005

Park Dietz, a psychiatrist and an expert witness, testified in the Andrea Yates murder trial that just weeks before she killed her children, “Law and Order” had shown a similar story in which the defendant got off by reason of insanity. No such story ever aired. An appellate court overturned her conviction.

So why did he do it? According to a quote in the New York Times (1/8/05), he said he was simply “being defensive on a challenge to my credentials.” He had been a consultant on the show, and perhaps episodes ran together in his mind.

So what does this have to do with change? I have been in meetings with leaders who, under pressure, said things they later regretted. They made false statements of fact, promises, threats, sarcastic comments, or drew lines in the sand – all of which they later regretted. When we are challenged in court or at work, it is easy to get defensive and say or do things that get us in trouble. It’s as if words come out of our mouth before our brain has had a chance to engage. I call these knee-jerk reactions.

It is possible to avoid knee-jerk reactions. But you need to work at it. First, identify what people could say or do in a meeting that would cause you to react defensively. Then go further, and ask yourself why these comments (or looks) set you off. Knee-jerks usually are set in motion by things that we perceive to be a threat. In Dietz’s case, it was a threat to his credentials. Holding these observations to the light of day often takes their edge off. Also, just knowing what could happen helps us take things in stride when someone has the audacity to attack us.

If you’d like to learn more about knee-jerk reactions and what to do about them, you can copy a PDF version of my chapter on knee-jerks: