Toolbox: Hand signals

Episode 8 of the Resist + Renew podcast, where we get into using hand signals (“agreed gestures or shapes that people make with their hands, to communicate in a non-verbal way”) as a facilitation tool: what hand signals are useful in facilitation, when they’re useful, and their limitations.

‘Know why you want to use them, be really clear on what they’re for, and keep it kind of simple.’ – Ali

Show notes, links

The perenially-useful Seeds for Change have a PDF that covers a lot of the hand signals you may see in meetings.

See our “What is facilitation?” podcast episode page for more general facilitation resources.


Ali: This is Resist + Renew.

Kat: A UK-based podcast about social movements.

Sami: What we’re fighting for, why, and how it all happens.

Ali: The hosts of the show are:

Kat: Me Kat,

Sami: Me, Sami,

Ali: and me, Ali,

Sami: I’m recording this now baby

Ali: Shit it’s a podcast.


Ali: Hello again, this is the Resist+Renew podcast. And this is the time where we talk about facilitation tools where we geek out and examine some of the things that groups might use to help things go a bit more smoothly. And this week, we’re talking about hand signals. Many people have probably come across these in meetings, it’s just a way that you can non verbally communicate to each other. And it can be really useful for the facilitator to get a sense of what’s going on in the room, it can be used to get who take turns on who’s gonna speak and communicate other things like that. So Sami, do you want to kick us off with a story?

Sami: Yeah, sure. So quick example of a scenario where hand signals have been really useful to me in the past is a situation on a protest. And that was at a Arms Company base in the middle of nowhere, lots of different people coming together for like a coordinated day of action to shut down this space and stop vehicles getting in, stop vehicles getting out. And a lot of people who hadn’t interacted before, all doing their own actions separately, but trying to make sure they all threaded together into a good plan and blockade. So what that meant was a lot of quite quick fire coordination with a lot of people that you’ve literally never met before in your life, you have no idea what the plans are, you don’t really know what you’re going to be trying to coordinate together. But you may be trying to talk about how you can collaboratively and effectively block a road and things like that. And so having like a shared idea of hand signals. And what I guess that kind of leads to is a shared idea of how like a conversation will be structured, which goes into the link, I guess, between hand signals and consensus, which we can maybe talk about, is really enabled, and made a lot more possible, making really quick decisions with strangers in a way where I think if you were just limited to talking, especially in an environment where there’s a lot of police around, and you’re trying to make a plan, which is really contingent on the police not knowing what you’re doing. And having being able to like form up a little circle and do little signals and whatever to each other to indicate agreement, and things like that meant everything went a lot more smoothly than it could have done. So that’s a vote of love for hand signals. So worth noting, in the prep chat for this not entirely love for hand signals. So I guess, let’s move on to maybe what we see some of the limitations being.

Kat: Yes, I guess I don’t use hand signals very much. And I think one of the reasons is because I had a fairly negative experience when I first came across them, which was a lot of people using hand signals and not explaining to me what they were. And coming into a group where people were using lots of signals that I didn’t understand felt quite excluding. It also felt a bit culty. And I couldn’t really engage because I didn’t know what was happening. And then I was also kind of shouted out a little bit for not knowing what the right hand signal was for the right piece of the process. And I think that can happen quite a lot of the expectation of knowing what to do, not necessarily why, if it’s explained at all, and sometimes it’s not explained at all. So that’s kind of one lot of reasons why there are quite a lot of limitations in terms of Is there time to explain what they are? Is there time to explain why they’re being used? And is there time for people to actually learn and get involved in the hand signals if that’s the way the group works. And but then I guess also if you’re in a context of where hand signals are being used, and there are also limitations around what people are doing with those hand signals, and sometimes like negative hand signals are used, and where like strong disagreement and is used, actually someone else explain that. So I’ve not seen that happen. I’m just reading off the notes at this point.

Sami: I guess because I put that in as a thing so like, I guess it’s worth noting that like hand signals that a lot of like grassroots political organising contexts often have a strong link with consensus decision making. And and a lot of the hand signals that come from that are hand signals that kind of link into specific aspects of a consensus decision making process, ie indicating agreement with something and and then like, which Is that probably the most common one people just like twinkling their fingers waving their fingers? and transfers? Great onto a podcast?

Ali: jazz hands?

Sami: Exactly. Sometimes people lose it, people in the states say twinkle fingers, and it just sounds so much more adorable than jazz hands. And but I think, and there’s a like, kind of a lot of complexity that can go into that in terms of like loads of different hand signals for loads of different stuff, which kind of links into the problem Kat was talking about in terms of cognitive load, I guess, like, there’s just a lot to remember. And to get to the point where people don’t have to put up big posters… I’ve seen, like protest camps before having big posters explaining what all the hand signals are, which I’d say, if you’ve using that many hand signals. Maybe the process is too confusing. I don’t know. And but I think that there’s a thing which I’ve seen happen in spaces where things aren’t really operating by, at least aren’t operating by formal consensus, let’s say, though, maybe people were to describe what they’re doing as consensus decision making a conversation for another time, is that there? There, there are hand signals that people will use, which were kind of I would guess, intentionally never really included in the initial set of hand signals, for example, signals to indicate disagreement with something. And because what that can mean is if somebody says something, and people start like so a one, I’ve seen it a few spaces is people can like twinkling their fingers just on significance, but with the hands pointing down, and to be like, no, which is a very bracing thing to happen when you start talking. And people just start disagreeing with you mid chat very, definitely throws you off maybe is the kind of thing that can work fine in a group of people that already know each other quite well. But in a more open space, which is the generally the context I’ve seen them used, I think it’s I think it’s really jarring for the people that it’s happening to. And so I think there’s – hand signals being used for things which really, you shouldn’t be communicating non verbally, you should probably be, if possible, communicating verbally to people. So not just saying, I don’t like what you’re saying, but at least trying to communicate why you don’t like what they’re saying. To give them something to go off.

Ali: I definitely liked what you’re saying Kat about the not knowing like what this hand signals are or like it feeling culty. I definitely think like, hand signals are full into that like activist subculture thing of like, you have to know it. And if you don’t know it, you’re not in it. Really. Yeah. Can be like a kind of like a policing thing of unknown thing. Definitely true. Also heard mentioned quite a lot that it’s quite a classist thing, like, putting your hand up to speak is very middle class and jarring. If you’re like, more used to like a conversational style of speaking where people talk over each other rather than waiting politely. So I’ve definitely heard people say like, I don’t want to use it for that reason. Yeah.

Sami: Big air quotes around “waiting politely”, politely. You had a you had a story, I think Ali your story around.

Ali: Yep. So the first time I came across hand signals, or one of the first times was that my first anarchist bookfair, which was in Cape Town, and my friend ran a workshop in the morning. I can’t remember what it was on maybe, like, anti oppression or something. And it was fine and interesting. But at the end of it, this big guy, suffer looking guy kind of stood up and said, like, this was really bad, like, really poorly facilitated, I’m really not happy. And I’ve been told these camps, like Occupy in the States, and if like, we should be using all these hand signals. So anybody who wants to learn how to do a meeting properly, come and meet me outside, and I’ll talk you through it. And thankfully, no one really went to meet him. Which is funny, because he’s being a bit of an idiot. But what I think it kind of illustrates is this idea of like, using all the hand signals all the time, and yeah, not really knowing why. So I think I think that was like a interesting example.

Sami: A real fetishizing of hand signals.

Ali: Yeah, when it was just like a chat, if any hand signal was required, it was just like, put your hand up to speak. And that was totally fine.

Sami: Yeah, I think in that, like, what not wy thing, the thing which I have seen happen a lot, which again, goes back to I guess where consensus comes from is this. I’ve seen a lot of meetings where people will present hand signals at the start in an open meeting context. So they’ll just basically say, so if you want to do this, do this. If you want to do this, do that. If you want to do this, do that. If you want to express agreement, twinkle your fingers, raise your hands. If you want to ask a technical point, then make a ‘T’ with your hands and blah, blah, blah, but they won’t say why you do that. They won’t say what a technical point is or they’ll maybe give like the classic example of like, the buildings on fire or whatever, like, but I think it’s often. And this isn’t just a thing around hand signals, but things being presented in a way, that doesn’t really give you any more explicit explanation as to why you’d be doing the thing. Yeah. So not missing out the bit. That’s like we do this so that you can signal agreement with people without having to just put your hand up and say, like, I also agree. Cool. Thanks. You know, like the, the reason that they’re beneficial is often not brought in.

Kat: Yeah, and I think that’s when I’ve seen them be used most powerfully is when they come, they are brought in because the group needs something. And so we were in a large group trying to work out a decision. And it was just really helpful to know who in the room vaguely agreed with what was being proposed. And so the facilitator proposed, like, if you vaguely agree, maybe wave your hands, so we have a sense of who in the room agrees. And it’s like, oh, this is practically useful right now, rather than a thing that we must do always. And it came out of that need, which I think just made it a lot easier for the group to engage with. And Ali, you had another one about language. And if you want to share that.

Ali: yeah, like a good time I’ve seen it being used is like when there’s been like international camps, or even just in a space where everyone’s first language is not English. And sometimes people put their finger in that ‘L’ symbol, which just lets people know that you’re speaking, you’re a loser. Oh, it means you’re speaking too fast, or you’re using language, which is too jargony or too complicated and not communicating well to everybody. So asking people to think about their language and simplify it is really helpful.

Sami: So I guess it’s like kind of maybe linking into some of those other conversations around like, the ways in which they’re productive is ways in which you can like, express something that’s either like a request for support, or an agreement. So like, you’re kind of expressing things that are more kind of like value positive or value neutral, rather than things are more value negative. So like, there’s ones people use around like language, slowing down is like a request that’s quite often in those kind of spaces, things for clarification and stuff like that, which means that you can, in the language, some people use a facilitation, like ‘jump the stack’ for things that mean, until your requirement is met around something being clarified, you won’t be able to follow the conversation, you won’t know what’s been talked about. So like being able to make a quick signal to say like, could you just explain what that word means? Or can you just say where that place is, whatever, will just really facilitate your ability to continue being part and like joining in the discussion.

Kat: So what are our top takeaways on hand signals?

Sami: Beef, beef, beef,

Ali: Top takeaways, knowing why you want to use them, and being really clear on like, what they’re for, and keeping it kind of simple. And making sure that if you are using them, explain them in a way that isn’t just like this is a direct response, not, but actually say like, if you want to just quickly clarify something, or you want to like, give a quick, factual disagreement to that, like or factual update, then do this, rather than getting all cliquey about it.

Sami: And I’d add maybe quite a similar one, which is around, like being really clear on situations where you think that could be useful that are, like relevant and useful for the people that you’re explaining them to. And I guess also, that can involve an explanation of like, when they’re not useful, like people misuse this to do this. People use this productively to do that, to help people like know where they’re coming from.

Kat: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s one other thing I guess, which is that often hand signals come in, around process. And so they’re often used in order to help the process of a conversation go in a certain way. And I guess for me, there’s also something around affirmation that can be really useful in in hand signals as well. So if you’re in a group, and maybe there are less confident people speaking, speaking into silence can be really intimidating. But actually, if you are being met with people waving their hands at you, or smiling at you, that can help a lot. And so there’s also like relational stuff that can be really good about hand signals. It doesn’t just have to be in the process box.

Sami: Few things better than the feeling of being in one of those big groups with loads of strangers and saying something and then you see people waving their hands and you’re like, yes, I am accepted.

Kat: Right

Sami: Hand signals. Love it.

Ali: Thanks again for listening. As always you can find us on all social media platforms and our website

Thanks to Klaus for letting us use this song Neph for our intro and outro music.

And see you next time!

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