Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today

You Did What With Your Hands?

by Jeff Thompson
August 2011

Enjoy Mediation by Jeff Thompson

Jeff Thompson

Hand gestures and hand placement are important.We use them all the time yet either their importance is often discounted or they are stated as being the obvious.What do I mean by importance?They are important as they can help us be more effective communicators or contribute to misunderstandings. The obvious comments are often “of course that gesture means that” however are you fully aware of the gestures you use and those used by others?

As coaching, conflict and communication professionals, not only what we say is important but also what we do. This brief article will give some examples of gestures and hand placement that often can reflect an emotional state the person is feeling, as well as being used to compliment or contradict the verbal message being delivered.

This blog post is listed in sections as each one can be read and practiced on its own, while collectively it gives a good starting point (pun to be intended) to becoming aware of the important role of hand gestures and placement.

Firstly:I approach nonverbal communication, and for this blog article solely gestures, from a social semiotic perspective.What does that mean?It means approaching it from 3 steps

1)Identify the gesture used (this is semantics for the geeks out there like me)

2)Determine how is the gesture used in combination with other gestures (syntactics)

3)Explore what the gesture means, especially given the context of the situation (pragmatics)


Feelings or Communication? Hand gestures can communicative or emotional based.Sometimes both.

Is the gesture congruent with the words being spoken?Often when the gesture being used does not match with the words being spoken, it is the gesture that people tend to believe to be more truthful.Have a look at the images below and imagine each person saying they feel confident.Which is more believable?


Intentional or Unintentional?Calling out people and telling them they are not comfortable because they touched the back of their neck could very well be true but often people are not aware of these unintentional gestures (these are called adaptors).The uber-scientific term for this is “leakage.” Really.

Being aware of them does not equal telling people overtly. Rather, observing them helps you prepare what to say or do next.

Also, in regards to intentional or unintentional gestures, ask yourself if the message is being received the way you intended?Consider varying gestures based on cultures and geographic location.The “V” peace sign has a much different meaning based on which way you palm is facing (towards you or the other) and many of the UK readers can vouch for that.

Much more everyday examples include, as further discussed below is pointing your finger.Your intended use of pointing is the gesture form of the exclamation point- you really mean what you are saying.However, the other person thinks you are being rude or condescending and confrontational.No matter what you intention is, it is the person decoding it that has greater importance.

Hand To head or Head to Hand?Ever notice the difference between the two? The first can show interest while the latter often is a sign of boredom.Make a ‘note to self’ to avoid this while working with clients!

What’s the point (pun intended!) of this and how does it apply to conflict coaching and others who work in conflict resolution?Well, firstly being aware of your own use of gestures can help you be more effective. Did you point and didn’t realize it?Did you notice the person say “I am fine with that” yet at the same time they started fidgeting with their necklace?

Nonverbal communication is not a definitive science but it is a science none the less.I look at it as offering another viewpoint, often one that is subtle and subconscious yet can help you communicate more effectively as well as understands others- especially when you are trying to assist them during a conflict.

For more on this have a look at a brief presentation [here] or by click the image below on semiotics and nonverbal communication.It has lots of finger pointing!


Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School having researched the impact nonverbal communication has in conflict situations with respect to developing rapport, building trust, and displaying professionalism.

Dr. Thompson has presented and trained on the topic of conflict, mediation, (crisis and hostage) negotiation, communication and nonverbal communication internationally for a variety of audiences including police personnel, government officials, judges, attorneys, physicians, sales people, business professionals, and both graduate and undergraduate students. He has also been published in numerous professional and academic publications.

He is the co-chair of ACR's national Crisis Negotiation Section, and he is an ad-hoc reviewer for multiple academic journals. He received his MS in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from the Werner Institute, Creighton University School of Law.

(All posts by Jeff Thompson represent his personal reflections and opinions and not that of any organization.)

Email Author
Author Website

Additional articles by Jeff Thompson