Whether you were taught to fold your hands on your lap, hold your hands behind your back, or shove them in your pockets, you won’t be able to avoid the fact that your hands are communicating all the time. After many years of debate, researchers have finally agreed with ancient wisdom: gestures precede words. Although we can’t travel back to early humans and how they communicated, we can surmise from this that gesture has been a key ingredient in conversation for millions of years.
Most people think that we gesture in order to help clarify our ideas to others. But we’re really gesturing in order to clarify our ideas to ourselves. The movement of your hands are like a feedback device to your brain. We’ve all heard the cliché, “Actions speak louder than words.” Your gestures often reveal the truth behind your carefully chosen words.
In the early nineteenth century, a man named Francois Delsarte was the premier body language expert of his time. He developed a system for studying the whole body and how it communicates. Long before modern science, Delsarte stated that the hands were connected to the thoughts. “Gestures are the lightning, words are the thunder,” he once said. Besides identifying parts of the hand associated with our mental, emotional and physical processes, Delsarte broke our gesture language into nine functions:
1) To define or indicate – e.g. pointing.
2) To affirm or deny –hand moving up and down, or sideways
3) To mold or detect – fingers softly coming apart and together
4) To conceal or reveal – closing and opening fist
5) To surrender or hold – open palm or cupped palm
6) To accept or reject – palm beckons or palm pushes away
7) To inquire or acquire – hand reaches or pulls inward
8) To support or protect – palm up or covering
9) To caress or attack – to stroke or slap
You can experience the difference in how a gesture affects the quality of your words by saying a simple sentence: “I have no idea.” If your palm pushes away, you are rejecting the whole concept. Try it with closed fists, and you can feel how it’s as if you’re holding something back. Reach your hand out to someone and you’re begging for the answer. These are just a few ways to amplify the words. Of course, hand gestures are a small part of your body’s story.
Play around with the following sentences and see how changing your hands affects the words. Pay attention to what the rest of your body chooses to do as you gesture.
“You can count on me.”
“I can count on you.”
“I really like that idea.”
“Have you considered another alternative?”
“I am definitely qualified for the job.”
There is a Greek saying that “language was invented so that men could lie.” But it takes mastery to control one’s gestures. You can begin today with some simple things to remember while in conversation.
1) If you want someone to trust or like you, don’t put your hands in your pockets. It means you’re literally “hiding your thoughts.” In television, they call hands in pockets “the kiss of death” for a TV guest.
2) While folding your arms across your chest does not, as is commonly believed, always mean you are “closed”, it is a protective gesture. You may be feeling insecure, or want to keep your thoughts to yourself, literally. It can affect your easy breathing (more on that in a later article). It limits your gestures, making people feel you are holding back. Just try to check in with yourself when you catch yourself folding your arms in a conversation.
3) When in doubt, as weird as it feels, allow your arms to rest by your sides. That neutral space gives people permission to speak to you.
4) As your mother said, avoid pointing, unless you’re trying to direct people’s attention to something. Pointing at someone always feels like an attack or an accusation.
5) Be aware of clenching your fists. Even though it seems like a small gesture, it betrays and actually causes tension as well as again, giving the impression of hiding something.
My book, Walking Your Talk: Changing Your Life Through the Magic of Body Language, contains many more exercises that can help you understand your gestures.