Join Carol Kinsey Goman for an in-depth discussion in this video Communicating with your hands, part of Body Language for Leaders.
- The body language question I get asked most often is, "What should I do with my hands?" My answer is, "Use them." Neuroscience has shown that a brain region which is important for speech production, is active not only when we're talking but also when we gesture with our hands. Since gesture is tightly linked to speech, moving your hands as you talk can actually power up your thinking. Which, by the way, is why you gesture even when talking on the telephone. In addition, when you communicate with a variety of active gestures, you tend to be evaluated as warm and agreeable and energetic.
If you're hands remain still, or stiffly by your side, you're seen as analytic and cold. Then there's the issue of trust, which is evaluated through alignment. You come across as credible and trustworthy, when your gestures are in full agreement with what you're saying. There are three categories of hand gestures that leaders use most often. Emblems, illustrators, and regulators. Emblems have an agreed upon meaning to a group and are consciously used instead of words.
In the US, these include the thumbs up sign, that's commonly understood to mean, "Good job," "Okay," or "Everything's fine." And hand rocking with the palm turned down which means, "So-so," or "Maybe." We learn emblematic gestures at an early age and they generally differ from culture to culture. So, remember, that effective emblems in one culture may be meaningless, rude, or even highly offensive in another. Illustrators are movements that accompany and help clarify speech.
These gestures are used to physically illustrate a point, like pointing to the right when telling someone to turn in that direction. Or creating a visual picture, like showing sales figures going up. Regulators are gestures used to manage the flow of conversation. It's one way of encouraging some people to speak up and advising others to hold it. Of course, there are gestures you should avoid. The first of these are pacifying gestures. When nervous or stressed, we tend to soothe ourselves with a variety of self-touches.
We wring our hands, rub our legs, pull at our collars, fiddle with our jewelry, or play with our hair. In a business setting, pacifying gestures can make you look tentative or unprepared. Finger pointing should also be avoided. Although I've seen executives use this gesture for emphasis or to show dominance. The problem is, rather than being a sign of authority, aggressive finger pointing suggests that you're losing control of the situation. And it smacks of bullying and intimidation.
And please eliminate the fig leaf. This is the most common hand position that audience members display when I ask for volunteers to join me on stage, because they're nervous. Most people unconsciously clasp their hands in front of their lower body, creating a protective fig leaf effect. Whenever you use this gesture, especially during a formal presentation, it suggests that you're insecure or uncomfortable. Hand gestures are such an important part of your credibility, you should never hide your hands.
Instead, use your natural gestures to reinforce your verbal messages, and keep your hands visible even when seated. Place them on the conference table or desk to show that you have nothing to hide.