In this episode…
Our guest, Dr. Nathaniel Herr, is a clinical psychologist whose research at the Interpersonal Emotion Lab studies how our emotions influence our interpersonal relationships, and importantly, how our interpersonal relationships influence our emotions.
On this episode, Michelle Loux interviews Dr. Herr, starting with a recollection of the impact that two expert witnesses left on him during his time as a juror. Their conversation touches on the interpretation of facial expressions, techniques for interpersonal relationships in business, and how to apply these learnings as an expert witness.
Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Michelle Loux: Assistant Project Manager, Round Table Group
Guest: Dr. Nathaniel Herr: Associate Professor of Psychology at American University
Announcer: This episode is brought to you by Round Table Group the Experts on Experts®. We’ve been connecting attorneys with experts for over 25 years. Find out more at roundtablegroup.com.
Michelle Loux: My guest today is Dr. Nathaniel Herr, an Associate Professor of Psychology at American University. If you could please share a little bit about your background and areas of expertise.
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: I am a clinical psychologist. I have a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. I did my internship and postdoctoral work at Duke University Medical Center, and I am currently an Associate Professor of Psychology at American University in Washington, D.C. My research lab is the Interpersonal Emotion Lab. We study things that are related to how our emotions influence our interpersonal relationships, and importantly, how our interpersonal relationships influence our emotions.
Michelle Loux: That applies to many areas of life. It is useful to apply at work, home, and other aspects. Do you find that workplaces often utilize or refer to information that you put out there?
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: I think that it is certainly one of the fun things about working in psychology. In these topics even though we have our niche and areas of expertise, people are interested in all sorts of other areas, and they find this to be applicable. We do see applications for this in business, law, and other fields that need the connection to understand how humans can interact and understand each other better. It is nice to be able to appeal to a broad group of folks. In addition to the hyper-focus groups that I am more familiar with when I go to conferences or something like that.
Michelle Loux: 20 years ago, in the workforce, you did not hear about social-emotional learning. [When it did] one thought, “Oh, that makes sense.” I feel there is a drive and a focus, especially in public schools I see an emphasis on that, and in turn, everyday life. It has a platform now, would you say that is true, or has it always been there and maybe just not mainstream?
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: I think starting probably in the last 30 years or so of focusing on emotional intelligence and looking at these alternative versions of intelligence that people have gone beyond just knowing a lot of words or how to do complex math problems to realizing there are other ways that people can excel and have intelligence. In other areas and emotional intelligence rose out of that to say “Hey, this is a skill that some people have that can be developed.” I do not think before the 1980s you saw much of that being discussed.
Michelle Loux: Right. You recently were a keynote speaker at a Securities Round Table conference in Washington, D.C. Some of my coworkers and colleagues attended, and they were very impressed. Can you share a little bit about that speech and how it applies to being an expert witness?
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: It was a really fun experience. It was a surprise to have that invitation and it was a challenge for me at the moment to think, what can I say to this group of folks that I do not interact with regularly? Will this be an audience that will care about these topics? I think it turned out the answer to that was yes. What I enjoyed was thinking through the way that some of the fundamental research in my field can be applied in other areas, such as how the focus of what I discussed was how an expert witness can present themselves in ways that make their message more or unfortunately, less palatable to a jury, to a judge or other interested parties who are observing them. You know nothing about the actual value of the content they are delivering, but just highlighting the way that the content is delivered, the demeanor, the emotions that are displayed, and the facial expressions. Those things do matter and can convince someone who is not an expert. The expert witness is the expert in the area. If they are trying to convince other experts, a whole host of facts and evidence is likely going to be the biggest factor there. When discussing with an audience who may not be an expert in that area, who could be intelligent but in a completely different domain, many times these other types of factors play a role. How someone carries themselves, so they look like an expert and act like an expert, but they seem over-emotional or knocked off balance by a cross-examination. Those types of things will affect the perception of the truth or falsehood of their statements.
Michelle Loux: Right. You have shared a personal story about when you were a juror. If you can dive back into that story a little bit as far as your impression of the experts.
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: Sure. While I was in Graduate School in psychology, I was asked to be a juror in Los Angeles, and it was a case of a fender bender between two quite wealthy individuals who each had high-powered lawyers. It ended up being a five-day jury trial to determine damages for this car accident. The key part of the trial was that each one had brought an expert medical witness. Essentially someone would go over the medical documentation with the jury to explain why their party was more or less culpable for this. What struck me at the time was that one of the witnesses was accurate and professional but came across as a little grating and nitpicky. He kind of pulled up these big blown-up versions of medical documents and highlighted how the nurses had maybe mislabeled something or written the wrong date on something and moved the location slightly of an injury from one day to the next on a diagram. I think the juror’s reaction as we would discuss it later at lunch was that he seemed harsh when contrasted with the witness for the other side. They said he was light, funny and kind of loose while seeming to deliver the facts, at least the facts he wanted to highlight. There were times when the lawyer cross-examined him and tried to rattle him a little and he could make a small joke and move on. He did not seem to get rattled that much. There were times when the jury laughed at something he said. Over five days, it was pretty boring for the jurors. The highlight of the whole thing was this comic relief. There was a little bit of lightness to it. It felt like,” Hey, I can pay attention to this.” So, I think reflecting on that, realizing that I am not an expert on whether nerve damage in the arm is long-lasting or temporary and I do not know having two different opinions, but I could not easily evaluate the difference in their medical arguments. But I felt more compelled toward the expert that had a more pleasant and easygoing demeanor. That is what got me thinking about this topic. Maybe there were viable facts on both sides, but the jury ended up leaning toward that person’s argument and awarded a very small amount of money compared to what was being asked for. I think much of it had to do with the demeanor of the expert witness, not even as much as the facts the expert witness was presenting.
Michelle Loux: Being amicable, approachable and as an expert witness, being able to take something that is high level and have the jury understand. [Not all] jurors are not going to be electrical engineers or be able to understand the complexity of what a medical doctor is saying. That is huge and I find that our attorney clients are also looking for experts that hold themselves to that standard. The expert must have the ability to communicate with different people quickly
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle Loux: When there is jury selection, a lot of times the attorneys will read a room and could be consulting with psychologists or someone who can interpret body language. That is very important. You talked about universal facial expressions, right?
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: In terms of universal facial expressions, it comes from some research by Paul Ekman, who is probably most in the public eye. He is famous for being an inspiration for the TV show Lie to Me which was on a few years ago. One of the key findings that launched his more recent work was that he found he had Stanford students pose different emotional faces, angry, sad, and happy, and took pictures of these students. Then he had access to a tribe of native individuals in New Guinea who had very limited contact. They were people that did not have contact with mainstream society. They lived in an isolated area. Then, he was able to access his group and took these pictures over to them and through a translator was able to establish that some of those individuals recognized the emotions on the Stanford student’s faces. He also took pictures of those folks in New Guinea and brought those pictures back to Stanford and found there was a mutual agreement that this is what a happy face looks like and identified these six core facial expressions (happiness, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise) that are universally understood by humans, regardless of language, and exposure. So, we start with those core emotions when we are trying to build up to what is the devil? We feel we have this huge diversity of emotions, and we do, but many of them are sort of different grades or mixtures of those core emotions when we think about it. What is rage it is an intense version of anger, of course, but there might be things like jealousy in there? Is it some combination of anxiety and sadness along with anger? So, I think that is where that research comes from and that is what I was referencing in that.
Michelle Loux: How would you bring awareness of interpersonal relationships in the business world or maybe some key topics that you usually cover or highlight?
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: I am a clinician and a lot of what I do at least right now is to train others and train students in becoming clinicians. Before that I did in-the-room clinical work and one of the techniques we teach people is how to be effective interpersonal, and we highlight that we might have that. We often have in each situation, different demands that pull on us, and we kind of parse it into three zones. The first zone is the goal at hand zone, or I want someone to give me this document that I need and that is my objective. Zone 2 is the relationship goal, which is how we want that person to feel about us at the end of this interaction. The last zone is the self-respect goal. How do I want to feel about myself at the end of this interaction?
Many times, we attend highly to the objective. I need to get this objective met, especially in the business world where what happens matters the most However, there are times when we want to think about the other two things and say, “If I am going to get my objective met at all costs, is it possible I am going to burn this relationship to the ground? That will prevent me from getting something in the future or reflect badly on me in other contexts. Are there other times when we might want to consider whether we are willing to give up the main objective? If the only alternative is to completely damage this important relationship, and the self-respect thing too, how do you want to feel about yourself at the end of this interaction? If you get what you want, but in a way that is unethical against your morals or your values, you are going to feel like you have crossed your lines. Is that going to be an effective strategy in your life and your work going forward? We will ask someone to just reflect on these three kinds of zones in terms of planning out how you might approach it so that you at least acknowledge that it is not good about getting what you want entirely. If it could be in the end, you look at the other two and say, “I do not mind it,” that is maybe the way we approach when we talk to Verizon customer service and we want them to take off a charge that was there. We do not care about the relationship. We might not even care how we do it angrily or embarrassingly. We would not like to love the way we look to ourselves even, but in there we are willing to put those things aside. That may not be true in every relationship that we have in our offices or between offices. So, we want to consider those things rather than just trying to be kind of cut-throat. I am going to get what I want no matter what because there may be a longer-term negative consequence that you are not expecting or thinking about at that moment.
Michelle Loux: What are some tools that you provide? If so, what are some highlights you have to deal with?
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: If I focus on the relationship part of it, it is things like if I want to have an interaction with somebody where I want them to come out feeling better about me. Sometimes it seems obvious, but some things are important to keep in mind. Being a good listener in those situations is important. The biggest thing we call validation is critical. So, reflect on what someone says to you. Being able to say, “I understand exactly where you are coming from there. That is a great idea.” Even if the next statement is, “And I have this other thought too.” Starting with a validation. Another person’s perspective is a good way of drawing someone in rather than pushing them away. We talk about acting interested, you do not have to be interested in what they are talking about, but if you want the relationship to go well, you should act interested. That is something that probably most people who are in a committed relationship might acknowledge. There are times when it is best to act interested regardless of whether you are interested. That applies to our business relationships as well. If we are always distracted and if you are on a Zoom meeting with somebody and you are looking at other things. on your computer. You are not acting interested. It is going to come across that way. At best it holds those relationships. At neutral it works. They can start to create distance and problems there. I think those are some of the key things there.
I could go over some of how to get your objectives met, but a lot of that is the stuff that people know the best. Not being a broken record, not getting distracted when someone tries to throw you off the main point of the discussion but brings you back to the theme of what you are discussing. Clearly describe the situation and express how you feel about the key parts of that. In terms of self-respect, I think there it’s taking an inventory of what you value. What you think is right for you, your ethics, and your values, and making sure that you have thought about those things. Then not being willing to cross that kind of no matter what. Drawing a firm line in the sand and saying this is what I am going to do. Some of that can look like how you carry yourself, talking clearly, and making eye contact. Some are self-confidence things that will help you leave an interaction feeling good about how you handled it. Regardless of if you got what you want, regardless of whether the relationship is better for it. You can come out feeling like I kept my head held high, and stuck to what I believe in value, and therefore, I see that I am on the right track, even if that interaction did not go the way I wanted it to. I know that I have not diverted from my values and beliefs.
Michelle Loux: I want to go back to your speech, and your quote, “An aggressive witness is not an effective witness.” I think that is very true. It is what you just talked about how you build those interpersonal relationships in business, and even at home. How can that apply even as an expert witness? So, if you could talk more about that statement.
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: For humans, anger tends to bring out anger. It is a reflecting type of emotion. Friendliness breeds friendliness and hostility breeds hostility and so when a witness is angry, they might think that it is something that will show the strength of their argument, but it puts the jury in the mindset of arguing back with that person. Once they become argumentative, your mind starts to make the opposite argument or just engage in the fight almost. It is not full-on anger and rage, but it does make them antagonistic. Your antagonistic parts start to brew up a little bit and that is going to bring up well, maybe they are wrong because of this or maybe they are wrong because of that. And that is not what I think you would want in an expert witness. I have read and am reading through this in preparation for that talk, but one instance of anger can be useful, and that is in cases when the extra witnesses are being personally attacked. If the lawyer takes an approach to try to discredit them at a very personal level, then that sort of angry, indignant approach is what people would expect. If you do not do that, it almost can be seen as an acknowledgment of the truth or value of this counter thing that you are not. There are some moments when anger communicates effectively, but many times it sets up a competition, and unfortunately, the jury often ends up on the other side of that expert, because they are hearing it. So, then they are coming back at that person. I think that was the source of the idea that an angry witness is an ineffective witness.
Michelle Loux: That is very insightful and truthful. People do not prepare themselves to think about what they are going to say in every situation. Do you have any last comments about being an expert witness as it applies to psychology?
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: I think one of the challenges is managing your emotions on the stand or otherwise. In the moment, it is all well and good to say being an angry witness is a problem, but anger can arise when someone triggers it. It just emerges in a moment. I guess be aware and try to, at least for short periods of time, hold back expressions of those emotions. It is like an arm or leg muscle you would build up at the gym. It is something between those big moments, you want to be attending to your own emotional state and other low stake situations. Certainly, people would encourage engaging in mindfulness practice, but not just five minutes before going on the stand. Leading up to that as a way of building up that ability to stay in the moment and not allow their emotions to just guide your behavior right away. It does not have to be mindfulness. It can be just something more like awareness. When you are driving to work in traffic. You can use that as the perfect opportunity to take account of things. “What am I feeling now?” “What is going through my head?” “Am I anxious about where I am going?” and “I am angry at all these other cars.” The more you do that, the more you step out of those emotions, not letting some emotions push behavior, and they want behavior to happen. The more you can be aware of those emotions, the more you can make that choice. Using all of our human brains to say I do not. I hear that part of my brain telling me to run away, and to lash out, but I am going to choose, at least for the moment, to not do that. I think that type of workout for the mind put make you in a better place on the stand rather than thinking in the moment. I can it to happen.
Michelle Loux: I feel rejuvenated and positive right now. I feel like I am tackling everything.
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: Thank You.
Michelle Loux: I appreciate all your insights, tips, and your time. Thank you for joining us.
Dr. Nathaniel Herr: Thanks for having me.
After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.
Dr. Nathaniel Herr is a clinical psychologist, currently serving as an associate Professor of Psychology at American University. His research focuses on the etiology and effects of interpersonal dysfunction, emotion regulation difficulties, and identity disturbance particularly among adults or emerging adults with borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Our communication expert witnesses, speakers, and consultants on communication are scholars and researchers from major universities and industry professionals who have worked many years in the television, radio, and newspaper industries and consulted with organizations such as McDonnell Douglas, Merrill Lynch, Paramount Pictures, Fiat, Cracker Barrel, Xerox, and Eastman Kodak. They are experienced expert witnesses, frequent speakers at numerous state and national professional conferences, authors of numerous scholarly articles and books, as well as political campaign consultants.
Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind, and its functions specifically those that change behavior in specific circumstances. There are many disciplines and fields associated with the study of psychology, such as human development, health, sports, clinical, cognitive processes, and social behavior.