Speaking with hands?

Text by Hanna Vehkamäki

Ever been chairing a group discussion with the intent of making everyone’s opinion heard but fearing that reaching a compromise will take ages and still you can’t be sure the quieter ones have had a chance to express their views?

Interrupting people is often socially cumbersome,  especially in multicultural groups  where  the finesses of social norms vary strongly between individuals, but  interruptions are needed  for effective  meeting culture – important pieces of information should be presented  at a relevant point of the discussion. How can any chairperson (or facilitator) know in which cases they should allow interruptions?

Campers signaling agreement in a group discussion in Vallisaari. Photo: Havu Pellikka

I have often dreamt of a colour changing light installed to my forehead, such that I could switch it  on to indicate various things without raising my voice to interrupt the speaker, for example ‘I don’t understand’, ‘There is a fact that you need to know now, because that will change the direction of the discussion’, ‘I need to go to the toilet’ , ‘I can’t hear what you are saying’.

Apparently there is no need to install such a light, as we can use our hands to signal these things, and many activist movements have developed their own sets of hand signals (see for example https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/handsig.pdf) to make meetings smoother.  Signs for ‘Sounds good’  and ‘I’m not too keen on that’  help the speaker to gauge how far from collective agreement the group is without having to call a vote.

Some of the hand signals used in Vallisaari.

Even if this sounds artificial for use in workplace meetings, I would give it a go even one single time: teaching a sign system to a group is a way of making the rules of  group discussion and decision making clearer – even if the signals are not adopted as a permanent feature. It is for example worth realizing that ‘the rest of you can do that, but I won’t join you in this activity’ is a different statement than ‘I don’t want this group to get involved in this activity, I will have to  leave the group if you do that’. Turns out that my 10 year old daughter had learned several of the signals at school, most notably the ‘let’s get  back to our topic and stop all speaking chaotically’ signal.

The introduction of signals in Vallisaari made me start to analyse the diversity of types of interruptions and failure modes of group discussions. The ‘too much macho-alpha-crap’ signal will come handy, too!

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