Three Things Working in Criminal Law
Taught Me About People
By Sonia Hickey
Most criminal lawyers enter the profession out of a strong sense of justice – a desire to ensure that the ideals of right and wrong are upheld in terms of the law. And the law is a pretty prescriptive science – at its core, it offers a fairly ‘black and white’ view of the world: people are either guilty or not guilty.
Of course, the problem is, that human nature comes in very many shades of grey. Here’s what working in criminal law has taught me about people.
1. Everyone has their own version of the ‘truth’
Each and every one of us has a mind of our own. No earth-shattering revelations there … We’re shaped, from the moment we’re born, by the things we see, feel, touch, smell, taste and experience. And we each have our own interpretation of these things.
It is this ‘interpretation’ which validates our views, values, morals, and decisions. Without going into the intricacies of neuroscience or starting a philosophical debate, we are all wired similarly, but not the same, and because our brain is a muscle, it is constantly absorbing, arranging, shaping and re-arranging the tangible elements and ‘facts’ we have in front of us. Ultimately, this forms our perception. And so, our perception is our reality – it is a reflection of what we ‘see’ and what we believe, and it drives our behaviour.
And the truth is, we’re always making shortcuts – we do this by judging, rather than taking the time to really investigate a person or situation. And then, because our brain is the clever manipulator it is, it will go in search of relevant info we’ve stored away to back up our judgement.
But herein lies the power of our minds to alter perception: If we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. When we stay curious and keep an open mind, we don’t get ‘locked into’ believing everything we see. But we have to accept that we’re all different. And we each have our own version of the ‘truth.’
2. Other people’s problems are not my own
Does this sound callous and uncaring? Actually, I’ve learned it’s exactly the opposite.
In the book To Kill A Mockingbird by the late Harper Lee, there’s a line by the main character Atticus, that goes like this: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Ironically, Atticus was a lawyer. Tasked with defending a man in a case that was virtually unwinnable from the outset because of racial prejudice and societal pressure.
But in any context, his words are excellent life advice and it relates to the notion of us each having our own version of the truth. In an effort to better understand each other, ideally, we’d all, where possible, avoid judgement and seek further information by actively listening, asking questions, and taking a genuine interest in what makes people ‘tick’. But it’s at this point that we need to apply the brakes. Because we don’t need to take on other people’s problems.
In fact, taking on other people’s problems can be counter-productive. It’s human nature mostly, to want to help fix things, but in fact, we really don’t have that right or that responsibility when it comes to other people.
And to believe that we do, can be emotionally exhausting.
Once you release yourself from the responsibility of taking on other people’s problems, you’re free to be truly empathetic, because you can remain sturdy, steadfast and impartial.
You can acknowledge and better understand another person’s distress or point of view, but when you take on the burden of the problem too, you lose the opportunity to empower others to find their own path.
Similarly, you don’t need to take other people’s judgements of you personally. Easier said than done, I know. We all want to be liked and accepted. But everyone else’s perception will always be different from yours, and that’s ok.
3. Everyone needs someone in their corner
When the going gets tough, many of us are guilty of running for cover, going out of our way to ‘avoid’ someone who is going through a tough time because we get uncomfortable – we don’t know what to say, or worse, we worry we’ll say the wrong thing.
But here’s what you need to know. You don’t need to say or do anything.
“Holding space” became a bit of a popular term on the internet a while ago and in essence it really means that you just need to show up – openly – for another. Let that person rant, rave, grieve, cry, talk. And just be there. Wholeheartedly be there. You don’t need to provide advice, and you don’t need to ‘get involved’ – you just need to provide time and be the someone who is willing to listen.
Often, when we’re dealing with a complex issue, many emotions come into play simultaneously. And while those emotions are rattling around inside of us they remain a bottled up, jumbled mess.
When we let them outside of us, once they are spoken and given a label, they become concepts we can actually grasp.
And when this happens we can start to find our own inner strength and wisdom and work towards confronting them, one by one.
It takes a brave person to truly connect with another without fear, judgement or their own ‘perception’ getting in the way, but when you do, it can be transformative, and the most important gift you can give another. Because, from time to time, whether it’s a toughened criminal or a loved one at the end of a long, hard day, we all need someone in our corner.
Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.
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