Hand Signals for Better Discussions

A while back I mentioned the “Occupy Hand Signals” that I’d experienced during a Lean Coffee workshop. If you are a bit skeptical about it – as I was in the beginning – here’s a quick test-run you can do:

At the beginning of the meeting…

Start by introducing four concepts:


“If you have something to add to the current subject, hold up one finger. This will let us know that you’re ready to contribute to the conversation we’re having now.”
palm“If you have a new subject to bring up, hold up your palm – not like Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter, just so we can see it.”

Pointer horizontal

“When you see someone with their finger or palm raised, just point your finger – all casual-like – in their general direction. If you see someone else raise a hand after, you can always point with your other hand as well.”

snap“Finally, if you agree with what someone is saying and want to express it more than, say, just nodding your head, please snap a few times – that way we’ll be able to hear the great stuff they’re saying, instead of interrupting with Hell yeah! and the like.”

That’s it. You may be tempted to add more to the explanation, to try and have people practice, but in my experience it’s not needed. In fact, in my experience it’s startling to see how self-regulating this method will be. Things that you think would be an issue simply aren’t:

  • What if more than three people have their hands raised?” Pretty easy: the third person doesn’t have any fingers pointed towards them. Also, this happens far less than you’d expect.
  • “What if one person monopolizes the conversation?” What, like this never happens at regular meetings? But don’t underestimate the power of all those pointing fingers and the one person waiting patiently to contribute. It’s a visible reminder that you are not the only one in the room.
  • “Aha! But then you’ll be pressuring someone into not fully expressing themselves!” As if there’s some problem with encouraging people to be concise? However, while the pressure can be intimidating, this method tends to actually be more empowering for those whose voices are heard less often.
  • “That snapping feels weird and hippie-dippy.” Yep. You’re right. Feel free to use “spirit fingers” instead for a while; going back to snapping will feel amazingly conservative.

Communication is Addictive

Here’s the fun part you can prepare yourself for: it’s gonna feel weird. Try it out for one meeting; when it’s done and people are shaking their head saying “That was just strange; we’re just not like that.” You may be tempted to point out that it is a methodology backed by research into Systems Centered Theory by pioneers like Yvonne Agazarian; but resist. Just nod, thank them for trying it out, and inwardly rub your hands in anticipation for the next meeting.

Every time I’ve introduced this to a group – including the time it was introduced to me – I see it used afterwards. Sometimes unconsciously, which is pitifully amusing, since those not in the loop wonder why a couple of people are suddenly pointing at somebody holding up their hand like “We’re number one!” Sometimes it’s the grimaces of frustration as people get cut off by wisecracks or exclamations. For me it was watching a group of very intelligent, passionate people all talk over each other trying to make their points. I really wish they knew the hand signals, I thought.

Give it a try; let me know how it works. Feel free to steal those images above; I created them, and would be glad to donate them if you want to create “cheat sheets” or the like.

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