Exposure in the Court: a Lesson in Empathy

One after another, the potential jurors were “thanked and excused.”  For two long days, the proceedings plodded along.  Had the lawyers not finally agreed on the people sitting in the jury in the box, I’d have been in there next.

Last week, I came tantalizingly close to serving on the jury for a DUI (driving under the influence) trial.  As always, jury duty gave me an intimate—and for the most part, edifying—glimpse inside our justice system. If you tend to do all you can to avoid serving, I ask you to please reconsider.  The system needs you.  If you or a family member were in need of a trial by jury, would you want all of your peers to have done their best to “get out” of jury duty?

But that’s not why we’re here.

We’re here because of the very public exposure of private lives that was on display during the jury selection process I witnessed.  Because a DUI involves issues such as alcohol and the police, prospective jurors were vetted to see what their experiences were with both.  Lists of questions were supplied.  Do you drink?  How much and how often?  Have you ever taken a field sobriety test?  Have you ever been in a car when you suspected the driver was drunk?  Are any of your family members currently in prison?

And one after another, although they had the option to answer any question privately in “side-bar,” prospective jurors told a room full of perfect strangers the intimate details of their lives.  They’d been sober for 12 years.  Their car was sliced in two by a drunk driver when they were a child, landing their baby brother in the hospital for a year.  Their son was eighteen years in prison.  Their cousin didn’t get a fair trial, as the video clearly showed that the other guy drew first.

This being Los Angeles, the responses came from people from across the racial and economic spectrum.  Executives and blue collar workers–East, West, and Southsiders– all raised their hands and told the truth.  And I was a spectator to this live confessional reality show.

It hit home like never before.  You never know.  You never know by looking at someone what they are carrying under the surface.  There are pains, challenges, and sufferings—as well as joys and triumphs—living in everyone.  Sure, we all know this intellectually.  But how often do we tap the idea and feel it emotionally?  It’s usually not until we are afforded an opportunity such as the one I experienced, where we see the layers of daily survival peeled back before our eyes, that we understand this to be true where it counts.  In our hearts.  In our guts.

Consider this a call to empathize.  To remember that the people you work with—and sometimes butt heads with—are human beings with struggles, victories, and failures.  Just like you.  And just like you, they’re trying to do the best that they can to take care of their needs and those of their families.

So before you write off anyone—be they colleague or stranger—as ill-tempered, standoffish, disrespectful or worse, take a breath and a step back and ask yourself, “What’s going on with them?”  “What pain are they hiding?”

Even if you never arrive at an answer, simply considering the question can help you re-humanize a co-worker or client.  Only then can you begin to repair or strengthen a relationship.

In today’s collaborative workplaces, where our professional success depends on the health of our relationships, we can’t afford to let these human connections deteriorate.

And that’s the whole truth.


  1. Larry Braman says

    Thanks as always, Michael, for sharing your insights. You’ve added a meaningful layer to this discussion.

  2. Great observations and well described, Larry. I have found in many other situations, it behooves us to dig a little more deeply before drawing conclusions, because many, many people are dealing with life and family crises of death, illness, cancer and so many other threatening and frightening issues, and these personal events do affect their being and behavior. Frequently, we tend to think that our needs and wants are more important, or that this or that person is “bad” because they are not doing what we want – not realizing that our wants are so insignficant by comparison. A little consideration and understanding goes a long way. Thanks for sharing the enlightening experience.