“Behold the hands…”

“Behold the hands, how they promise, conjure, appeal, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, beckon, interrogate, admire, confess, cringe, instruct, command, mock and what not besides, with a variation and multiplication of variation which makes the tongue envious.” Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592, French essayist).

A few years back I was returning to Essex from a day delivering training in Manchester. Feeling already tired, I was dismayed to encounter major roadworks requiring a long, long diversion, part of which involved a clogged up roundabout, with a constant stream of drivers joining from the immediate right. I recall that it took 40 minutes to travel the last half a mile to reach this roundabout, and the car in front then took a further ten minutes battling to get onto it.

Now, I’d stayed pretty philosophical about it all up till that point, but I did want to get home, so I decided to try something out. I wound down my window, stuck out my hand in a full palm ‘stop’ signal, fingers slightly splayed, looked directly at the drivers coming round and mouthed ‘thank you’, and went. Both lanes let me out with no sense of resentment and no angry beeping, and I went on my way.

It was a practical demonstration of The Power of the Hand.

I was prompted to write this blog about hand gestures following a conversation with a training participant last week. As part of the customer service programme I’ve been delivering at his place of work, we had previously discussed the nuances of the ‘angled palm down’ gesture when calming down a situation (one hand, palm down, fingers slightly splayed and hand at a slight angle). At the start of the next session he told me how he’d tried it out, in combination with a calm, assertive, respectful vocal delivery, whilst doing his second job as a taxi driver. He’d been dealing with an alarmingly hyper group of young men who had just been ejected from a nightclub. “It was amazing!” he said enthusiastically – “they just cooled down and were fine. I also couldn’t help noticing how the bouncer was really winding people up by jabbing his finger at them!”

Once you become aware of the huge messages your hand gestures convey, you’ll start noticing them everywhere.

If you think your hand gestures (apart from the obvious crude ones) aren’t that influential, I suggest you take a look at The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease. It’s a highly entertaining read and full of great whole-body insights. In it they talk about their experiment in which eight lecturers were asked to use three particular hand gestures whilst delivering exactly the same lecture to different audiences. They found that when the lecturer predominantly used a ‘palms up’ gesture (as if offering a gift), they received 84% positive testimonials from their audience. This dropped to 52% when the same lecture was delivered using a ‘palms down’ gesture – as if patting a dog on the head. But when the lecturer’s dominant gesture was to point their index finger at members of the audience, something astonishing happened: audience approval dropped to just 28% – and some participants walked out during the lecture. What’s more, these groups remembered significantly less of what the lecturer had told them.

How fascinating is that?

Of course, there’s more to effective body language than just flipping your hands round a different way; body language messages happen in clusters, so the rest of you has to consistently convey the intended message too. But if you deal with customers face to face a great deal – or spend your time presenting to an audience – how useful is it to know that by simply adjusting the height and position of your hand you can convey a whole different message and mood. That knowledge is pure gold.

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