The Power of a Gesture
Unless you are into neuroscience you don’t hear much about nonverbal communication. We have spent over thirty years training people how to use words and tone to craft a message to reduce conflict and generate compliance from difficult people under difficult situations. We even have a section dedicated to other nonverbal signals and how the selective use of your hands, where and how you stand as you deliver your message, but what of a specific gesture to carry the day?
Virtually all the best remembered examples begin as cautionary tales gleaned from our past mistakes. Most of us are not neuroscientists and maybe we don’t want to be but can the science of delivery be taught without years of serious education; in a word, yes. Many gestures we dislike are the product of irritating memories than come back to roost in the present when we need them the least. In a police uniform I entered the home of a family deep in the midst of disagreement. The problem, before I arrived, was minor and likely easily resolved by a few carefully spoken sentences laced with empathy for their individual points of view would have sufficed. Offering each a short opportunity to vent and regain focus before I start speaking was also an easy option. I even had the words to calm and redirect their behavior in my head. Not a difficult challenge as it was the third of this type of altercation of the week.
The officer with whom I am partnered with that evening and I entered the home with permission, what I consider over 50% of the battlefield objective already in hand, I began to speak. The words came easily with a practiced voice, but with a single gesture I watched the encounter deteriorate into a twenty minute recovery of my credibility. So simple a mistake as all I wanted was for an agitated and pacing husband to take a seat, any seat. I chose not with my voice but my index finger pointing to the closest to him and the farthest from household objects I thought could be used as a weapon if things went bad. Big mistake.
When he saw me point he went nuclear. He began shouting he wasn’t a dog that I could point and he obey in his own home. He continued to exclaim it was his house, his home, his castle and he was King here and not I, and I don’t tell him where to sit in his castle. I would have been happy to agree if I could have gotten back into the conversation.
Now we assess the prospect of a violation of the SAFER module and if we believe a physical action might be necessary to regain control of the encounter. As I did not feel I was at risk of a threat manifesting physically I just let him vent for another few seconds and changed the gesture from a point to both hands open with the palms facing upward (a compounded mistake here would have been to use a gesture with my palm or both palms facing him as a recognized signal to calm down or stop). I used a proven Verbal Judo deflector phrase – with the no harm to me and great benefit to him as I apologized for my error pointing to a chair and explaining that it was hard to carry on a discussion with him as he paced around the room. Changing again the gesture to an open hand with the palm up I leveled my arm I the direction of the same chair, and to my immediate gratification he took the three or four steps necessary and sat down upon what he now considered his living room throne.
Note to self – pointing bad! Asking good.
For the next several encounters I made careful observations of how people gestured and what gestures calmed or really ticked people off. Clearly in every encounter there is context for the problem and the rhetorical solution the other person sees as the way to solve it. Make a second note: Angry people don’t reason well and our voice takes a back seat to nonverbal signals in any volatile encounter. Our hands are good for a lot more than staying warm in our pockets during winter months and we need them to cast an effective delivery. We communicate a message long before we say our first word in the way we approach a scene, if we stand aggressively or confidently, our facial features (Maxim – All words flow from the face) which dictate our tone with or without our knowledge and approval, and even how we are dressed that day can have a definitive impact on how our delivery is received.
As for the index finger pointing, maybe we dislike it because it reminds us of being singled out, or perhaps from childhood by a parent while admonishing us for poor behavior. A finger is not a fist but the message is still received and we don’t like it. From a police officer approaching our car during a traffic stop with his or her hand on their gun butt even if it is still holstered to a supervisor with hands on hips as they ask to speak with us in private. The message is delivered and it will be negative if there is anything to fear in the encounter, regardless of the severity or potential consequence. Gestures create a picture and we must harmonize voice and other nonverbal if we are to be successful while others fail.
— Lee Fjelstad
Reference: Nonverbal Signals – SAFER – Verbal Deflectors