Body Language 13 Wringing of Hands

February 1, 2019

When you think about it, the human hand is a remarkable instrument. We have amazing dexterity and control of motion that is not seen in any other species. I once saw a demonstration by a speaker who had no hands. In order to illustrate the impact, he had a member of the audience come up on stage. There was a bottle of water on the table. The speaker asked the man to take a drink of water. Without using his hands, it was impossible for the man to get the bottle open. Think about how you would attempt to do it.

We take for granted how blessed we are that most of us have full use of our hands for most of our lives. We signal some of our emotions with gestures using our hands all the time. Just to sample a few common gestures, you can convey the following concepts with simple gestures. Try to show the following concepts using just your hands:

Hurry up
Call me
Just a little bit
Great job
See you later
Text me
I’m not sure
Go ahead

In future articles, I will deal with various ways we use our hands to communicate meaning and amplify our verbal communication. In this article I will focus on the gesture of wringing the hands. It is a common form of body language that we have all witnessed and all practice at some point. Like all gestures, there can be more than one meaning to this gesture, but the most common one is anxiety.

When a person is nervous, it is natural to put palms together and squeeze and slide one palm over the other in a wringing motion. Next time you are at the dentist’s office waiting for your appointment, if you are not reading a magazine or fiddling with your phone, look down at your hands. Chances are you will be doing some form of hand wringing. Until you stop and think about it, you are probably unaware that you are even doing it.

Let’s imagine together a cluster of body language signals that indicate a man is probably anxious. He is wringing his hands. His head is lowered toward hunched shoulders revealing less exposed neck. His jaw is set and lips are pursed. His head is slightly tilted. He has an upward glance and a slightly raised eyebrow. With that cluster of gestures, we can be quite certain the man is anxious about something.

Hand wringing can also result from the hands being cold. The physical friction of one hand sliding over the other creates some heat, and the hands feel warmer. Often rather than wringing the hands in a closed pattern, when people are cold, they tend to slide the palms and fingers over each other with fingers pointing straight up.

Coincidentally, anxiety can also cause the hands to become cold, because the body instinctively sends more blood to the vital organs in times of crisis or fear. The body is preparing for fight or flight. This is the reason your hands often feel cold when you have a job interview, a performance appraisal, or have to speak in public.

In order for any hand gestures to be effective, the hands must be visible. This is because when hands are hidden you cannot gesture at all to add credibility and congruence to what you are saying. This is the reason that hiding your hands when talking with someone generally results in somewhat lower trust.

We shall revisit hand gestures later in this series because there is a wealth of meaning to be understood. Hand gestures are particularly important when we first meet a person because there is a lot of evaluation going on at that time. We can actually plant a seed of trust (or not) within just a few seconds, as I will explain in a future article.

In the meantime, take note of the hand gestures you see. Note that usually wringing of the hands goes along with some form of anxiety. Also note that some people use hand movements to emphasize almost every word they utter while other people are much more restrictive with their hand gestures. Take note of how you use your own hands when talking to other people. You do it all the time, but are rarely conscious of these actions.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Is Transparency Situational?

May 18, 2013

TranspaarencyOne of the buzzwords for Organizational Development these days is “transparency.” The concept is that organizations can gain higher trust with all stakeholders if they are more open and less secretive. The correlation between higher trust, which also means better performance, and greater transparency has been well documented.

A great book on this topic is “Transparency,” by Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and James O’Toole (2008). The authors make the case that creating a culture of greater candor improves performance by fostering higher trust. Bennis even extends the argument by pointing out that in today’s networked environment, transparency is going to happen even if leaders try to hide the truth, so they would be foolish to even try to be secretive.

Transparency makes a great discussion, because we are all aware that total transparency is not always a good thing. There are many times in life when not saying what you think will produce a better outcome. For those who would like some evidence, consider the TV advertisement where a man is reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. His wife comes into the room behind him so that he cannot see her. She is wearing a red dress that is three sizes too small for her, and she is bulging all over. She asks, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” Without looking away from the paper or toward her at all, he immediately replies, “You-betcha.” The response was good for transparency, but not too smart for the relationship. The ad was cute, but it was a marketing flop, because I cannot recall the product they were selling.

In an extreme case, like above, it is easy to tell when transparency is not wise, yet most of us would agree that more transparency in the corporate world would improve conditions. So, what are the rules for telling when it is better to keep things to yourself rather than blurt them out. Here are seven factors that can tip you off that it is perhaps better to not be transparent on a specific issue.

1. If the statement is unkind or cruel

Thinking a negative thought about another person or situation is a common occurrence. When we share that thought without regard to the feelings of another person, we run the risk of destroying rather than enhancing the relationship. Try to use the Golden Rule as a guide when to share improvement opportunities or observations that might be edgy.

2. If the statement is illegal

There are times when it is against the law to share some information. In the corporate world, this happens when the valuation of an organization might be materially altered if the information became common knowledge. Suppose an organization was considering a merger with another company. It would be illegal to talk about it ahead of time, so transparency in this case would be inappropriate.

3. If the statement is dumb

Consider a negotiation for a new contract. You know that your company would settle for $100,000. The other organization offers $150,000. A transparent response would be, “Well, that is acceptable because we were willing to go as low as $100,000.” Most of us would agree that kind of transparency is just dumb.

4. If other people do not want to know

Some individuals blab out their thoughts and feelings constantly, even when other people have no desire to hear them. If you are speaking, and people roll their eyes when you say, “Well, I think that…bla, bla, bla,” then you know that nobody really cares what you think about the subject, and it is better to keep it to yourself. Watch the body language of other people when you are being transparent to detect when you are going too far.

5. If you are being combative

Some people like to argue over numerous petty things. It is like a sport sometimes. This habit of sharing feelings in order to score points gets old quickly after people reach the saturation point. We used to call a person like this a PITA (stands for “pain in the rear”).

6. In times of a crisis

There are some situations where blurting out the full truth would cause a panic situation. I can recall one time being a waiter in a restaurant, and we discovered that a busboy had inadvertently put gasoline rather than kerosene into the glass table lamps. When the discovery was made, all of the lamps had been lit and were burning, so we decided to calmly remove the lamps one by one and replace the gasoline with kerosene out in the parking lot. We completed the work quickly and efficiently, and the diners were never aware of a problem at all. It was a calculated risk that might have backfired, but we figured if the lamps were working well when we discovered the problem, they would continue to work while we swapped them out. An alternative approach to be transparent and order everyone out of the building immediately may have resulted in one or more lamps being tipped over in the rush to get out, which could have caused loss of life and the entire building.

7. When the truth would do more harm than good

This is a delicate one that comes up from time to time in medical situations. Suppose there is an airplane crash, and you were a medical person tending a mother who was dying and had only a few minutes to live. She asks you if her son survived the crash. You suspect the son has died, but are not sure. You allow the mother to have more peace in her own death by saying, “We hope to be able to save him.” The fully transparent answer would be “We are pretty sure he is dead,” but the more humane response at least lets the woman have a little more hope in her final minutes.

In this analysis, I have gone from the obvious situations where being transparent is not the best approach to highly delicate conditions that call for instant value judgments and are quite subjective. If we move back to a corporate discussion, the observation is that most organizations would be better off by being more rather than less transparent. Let’s look at a classic example to illustrate the point: the announcement of a future layoff.

The senior leaders have decided that a layoff is needed to contain costs during a time of a substantial business downturn. They argue among themselves whether to announce the lay off in advance or wait until the day impacted people will have to leave. The argument for advanced warning is that people will have time to look for alternate work while they still have jobs. The argument for not announcing early is that there could be sabotage among people, and that since only 20% of people will be affected, why upset 100% of the employees. This kind of discussion goes on frequently in organizations, especially during difficult times.

While there is no “right” answer that is correct in all cases, I maintain that the more open approach will have a better result for most situations. There are three reasons for this:

1 ) When people are treated like adults who can take bad news and deal with it, they are more likely to remain calm and rational than if they are treated like children who must be sheltered from the truth.

2) If people are given time to find a better pathway to the future rather than mouse-trapped by an immediate layoff, they are generally grateful.

3) It allows for open cross training for the people who have to backfill.

The issue of transparency is an interesting one, because it is clear that always being totally transparent is not a good approach and having a totally secret approach is also stupid. Somewhere in the middle there are intelligent choices, and it is up to leaders to make the right ones for the situations at hand.