By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Think about your face. There are 43 muscles there, and even now as you're reading this post, some are tensed and some are at rest. The resulting combination is what we call "expression." That unique configuration of facial muscles is used as a basis for some very quick judgments --- quicker than conscious processing -- about you: your personality traits including competence, warmth, intelligence, and seriousness, and also your more transitory states such as your mood and intentions. All that is, as they say, "written all over your face" and ready to be read by the next person who sees you. Now, chances are, no one is studying your face when you are on your own reading excellent blog posts. But you can bet that when you're either advocating or testifying in trial or deposition, your target audience will be scrutinizing and will have no choice but to interpret and to be influenced by what your facial expressions are saying. Given the high stress that often accompanies legal proceedings, that expression sometimes carries a dominant message of tension: Narrowed eyes, a furrowed brow, a tight mouth, along with general rigidity in the rest of your features risks conveying unease, irritation, arrogance, or a lack of confidence.
I would never coach someone to "act" with their face as part of their testimony or their courtroom presentation. That's because most attorneys and witnesses are not actors, and even for the few who are, it is simply too important to look and to feel natural, and too risky to come off as false. As with other aspects of nonverbal communication, it is not a matter of pretending, but rather a matter of reducing bad habits. Wearing your tension on your face is one of those bad habits. The solution is to relax and present a relatively neutral visage. I say "relatively" neutral because, interpretation being inevitable, no expression is ever fully neutral. But you do want a resting expression that communicates credibility and avoids tension. A new study (Hehman, Flake & Freeman, 2015) provides advice on exactly what that expression is. The study is handily written up in a recent post in Jeremy Dean's Psyblog, and my post will share that news -- including an image of that ideal face -- along with some recommendations for the advocate and the witness.