Body Language 70 Talking With Your Hands

March 5, 2020

Most of us make hand gestures while we are talking. The vast majority of the time when we talk using our hands for emphasis, we are unaware we are even doing it. The hand movements are just a natural way to assist us in communicating meaning.

This brief article examines the phenomenon of hand gestures while talking and suggests some guidelines that may be helpful for your professional and personal life.

The major variable in hand gestures to emphasize verbal communication is the amount that is done. Some people have almost no hand animation, regardless of the topic, and other people gesture practically for every syllable of every word. That frequency can get tedious for the listener very quickly.

An extensive study was reported in HuffPost where people studied thousands of Ted Talks and counted the number of hand gestures in the standard 18 minute length. They found that the most popular speakers made an average of 465 gestures in their talks while the least popular speakers averaged less than half that number.

This research indicates that giving 2-3 hand gestures for the average sentence helps listeners stay interested in the subject. But if we have 10-15 gestures in an average sentence, that constitutes an overload situation. People will eventually tend to tune out.

If you want to view the frequency of hand gestures and count for yourself, just listen to a political debate. Since the stakes are high and the participants are vying for the most attention, the gestures are usually more frequent. The gestures get more frequent as the level of tension increases. Also, since debates are usually done before a large audience, that also encourages large hand gestures to animate the points being made.

Hand gestures enhance story-telling, because they make the subject come alive more than just the plain words would do. Suppose you are describing the difference between a huge military vessel and a tiny fishing boat. If you hold your hands out wide apart for the former and just use your thumb and first finger to illustrate the smaller boat, people will grasp the meaning easier. Experienced and professional story tellers use their entire body to emphasize their points rather than just their hands.

Some people are clumsy with hand gestures and do not have a congruent presentation. Suppose you were using words that describe a swan floating gracefully in the water, but your hand gesture was of a chopping motion with a vertical hand. The meaning would be difficult to interpret. Some people are frequently not congruent with words and gestures, and it ultimately leads to a lowering of trust just the same as if the facial expressions are not consistent with the words.

Gestures originate in the Broca’s area of the brain located on the left side of the brain and part of the frontal lobe. We also use this area of the brain to decode the gestures of others. If a person has suffered a brain injury, it may be more difficult to give consistent signals or to understand the signals of others. If you see someone who frequently misuses gestures or often takes things the wrong way, that person may have suffered a brain injury from a fall or a crushing hit in football.

Another aspect of gesturing while talking is to be alert for the imaginary box that is bounded on the sides by your shoulders, on top by your chin, and on the bottom by your belt line. If the majority of your gestures are inside the box, then they will not be viewed as “over the top,” On the other hand, if you are prone to fling your arms out to the maximum length as you communicate, people will think you are an “out there” kind of personality.

One person who has a habit of flinging her arms to the maximum extent is Elizabeth Warren. If you view her in a debate situation, you will see a good example of extreme gesturing. That habit is neither good nor bad; it is just her way of communicating. If most people used that much emphasis for key points, it would become a much more animated world.

You also need to take into consideration the relative size of the other person when you talk using gestures. If a large imposing person uses wide gestures when addressing a much shorter person or a child, the result can be highly intimidating for the shorter person, and it may result in a lowering of trust.

Since most of the time you are not consciously aware of your gestures, it would be a good idea to pay attention to your pattern in different circumstances. How many gestures do you use when you have an argument with your kids? How many do you use when you are describing a particularly bad storm? How many do you use when trying to communicate information with people at work?

In this regard, professional speakers have an advantage. They frequently have recordings of their talks, so they can gauge the level of gesturing they use and moderate it as appropriate to become more polished.

You can benefit just by paying attention to your hands as you monitor your communication effectiveness more consciously. It will allow you to improve your connectivity with people and raise the level of trust you are able to achieve with them.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”

Leadership Barometer 20 Lower Credibility Gap

October 16, 2019

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Lowers Credibility Gap

In any organization there exist credibility gaps between layers. These gaps lower the trust within the organization and make good communication more difficult. Great leaders have a knack for lowering these gaps by filling in believable information in both directions: up and down.

When there is tension between one layer and another, great leaders work to find out the root cause of the disconnect.

It could be a nasty rumor, it could be based on a prior breach of trust, it might be an impending reorganization or merger, it could be due to an outside force like a new government restriction. Whatever the root cause will determine the key to elimination of the gap.

Use your nose

Excellent leaders have a nose for these problems and head them off while the gap is a small crack and before it becomes like the Grand Canyon. They help people breach the divide by getting the two levels to communicate and really negotiate a better position.

Weak leaders are more like victims who wait till the battle is raging and the chasm is too broad to cross without a major investment in a bridge.

Silo thinking vs. Team mates

The insight that usually helps is to remind the differing camps that they are really on the same team.  Silo thinking leads to animosity between groups.  Great leaders remind people that they share common goals at a higher level. There is no need for warfare.

A leader who has this skill is easy to spot because there are few paralyzing situations that have to be resolved. If you are one of those leaders, it will be evident. If you are not, it will also be evident. Seek to knit the organization together at every opportunity.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at or 585-392-7763.

Body Language 46 Clenched Teeth

September 21, 2019

The gesture of clenching teeth is well known and seems very simple. It is a way to show anger or aggression. As with many gestures, the more you think about and study it, the more interesting it becomes.

For sure, the classic meaning of clenched teeth is similar to what a dog does when it growls and shows its teeth. It is a warning sign to back off or risk being hurt.

Let’s look at some alternative meanings and also some of the collateral facial signs that go along with clenching teeth.

Struggle or annoyance

You might observe a man clenching his teeth when he is trying to put up a tent in the rain. Here, there is no other person to whom hostility can be directed, but still there is a struggle.

You might also observe a woman clenching her teeth when she receives the third unwanted robocall this hour interrupting her work each time. In this case, it is a system annoyance that is causing exasperation within the woman. She is not really angry at the specific person on the phone.

Tension, worry, or pain

It is common to see students waiting to take a final exam with clenched teeth. There is no anger involved, but there is real anxiety.

A person waiting in a hospital emergency room for test results to come back might have clenched teeth. I will confess to being an example of that last spring when I had a kidney stone.

Signal to back off

Here the person just wants space or time to sort things out. If he is feeling pressure, he may clench his teeth to signal the other person to back off and give some time.

On the playground, if one child is feeling bullied and wants the other kid to go away, the clenched teeth might signal that. Also, clenched teeth might be used by the bully in an attempt to intimidate the other kids.

Talking through your teeth

When a person is extremely angry, he or she may talk through clenched teeth. This person is trying to signal how upset he or she is at the moment.

Habitual facial posture

Many people grind their teeth while asleep and need to wear protective devices to keep them from wearing down their teeth. The habit is involuntary and is not associated with any particular stimulus.

Collateral facial indications

Often when a person clenches his teeth, his jaw muscle pops out and becomes round and red. I noticed this in a former supervisor of mine. I could always tell when he was clenching his jaw by looking at that muscle.

Flared nostrils along with clenched teeth is a likely sign of anger. Also, the temples often bulge when teeth are clenched.

All of these ideas are pretty well known, but it still remains for you to figure out the specific reason a person is clenching his or her teeth. Try to look for the collateral facial signals to develop a cluster. That verification will greatly enhance the accuracy of your understanding.

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

Improving Electronic Communication 1

February 20, 2019

Many of us now view electronic communication (email or texting) casually. We just type information as if we were chatting with someone in the hallway. This is potentially a big mistake.

When we communicate verbally, most information is conveyed through body language and voice inflection; only a small fraction of information is conveyed by the actual words. In electronic communication, all we have are the words as clues to decode information accurately, so the challenge is significant.

Imagine the advantage if we could read “ebody language.” We could understand the intent of notes by interpreting meaning in between the words on the screen. That skill would be important, as the percentage of electronic communications continues to rise. There is ample “body language,” and even voice inflection, available in electronic communications—if we know how to read the signals.

Unfortunately, most people have no training in reading electronic body language. They rely on the written words to impute meaning, which is like trying to paint a full-color picture using only red paint. They can’t blend different colors into subtle shades that reflect the richness of the scene.

Working with just the words means that sometimes people become offended when no offense was intended.

To read between the lines of text online, we have to pay attention to the signals and integrate them into a pattern that yields more information than the words alone. For example, if we know what to look for, the first few words on a message often give vital clues to the tone of the note.

The difference between “Hi Mary,” and “So Mary,” is huge if you are Mary. Keep an eye out for the tone, timing, and tension in your electronic communications.


Tone builds additional meaning into notes in dozens of ways. Emoticons and acronyms are two well-known methods that should be used sparingly and only in casual communications.

Qualifying conjunctions, such as the word “but,” often convey the opposite meaning from the literal words of a note: “We loved your class, but it is good to have it completed.” The conjunction becomes an “eraser word” because people pay more attention to what comes after the “but.”

Other kinds of expressions might also convey the opposite meaning. For example, “no offense” usually means the writer is expecting you may take offense. Some words or phrases tend to inflame people if not managed carefully. “Let me make it perfectly clear” is a good example.

Much of the tone of a note is contained in pronouns. “You” is the most commonly misused pronoun. “You never let me finish my work” is an example. The reader interprets this as an accusation or lecture and becomes defensive. Whenever starting a sentence with “you,” check to see if it might send a wrong signal.

Overuse of the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” make the writer sound parochial or egotistical.

Too much emphasis on “we” and “they” will signal a competitive atmosphere where silos inhibit good communication and cooperation.

To maintain credibility, avoid using absolutes. “She has never done anything to help us” is easily proven incorrect.

Try to avoid phrases with double meanings, one of which is sarcastic: “His diatribe at the meeting shows what an emotionally intelligent leader he is.” Sarcasm is often disguised as humor, but it can quickly backfire with uncontrolled distributions.

Never write something in an email that you would not be willing to have anyone read, because literally anyone might receive a copy.


Timing issues with electronic communication often lead to problems. A major issue is the asynchronous nature of email and often with texting. Since people open notes at different times, one person might respond to a note that has already been superseded, leading to much confusion.

When chatting, your input may be a response to a point made several entries back, which can lead to unintended, often comical, but sometimes embarrassing exchanges.

The antidote is to be alert for misunderstandings based on when people respond to notes. Sometimes notes arrive in the inbox when readers are in an overload situation or otherwise unable to react positively.

The solution to timing issues with electronic communications is to use common sense and try to reach your reader at a time when he or she is most receptive. This advice is more critical when emotions are high.


Tension and interpersonal conflict often leave a bloody trail in electronic correspondence. Inappropriate outbursts of anger in texts or e-mails usually make both parties look foolish. When individuals escalate conflict in online exchanges, it becomes like a childish food fight.

The way to stop an “electronic grenade” battle is to refrain from taking the bait. Do not respond to the attack in kind. Acknowledge a difference of opinion, but do not escalate the situation. Switching to a different form of communication will help avoid a trail of embarrassing notes.

The three T’s explain some of the mechanics of e-body language, but why should organizations be vitally interested in this subject?

E-xcellence: The Corporate Case

E-xcellence offers a pragmatic and inexpensive approach to resolve some of the most frustrating issues quickly. All organizations face the challenges associated with communicating online efficiently. The solutions may appear elusive. So, by including e-xcellence as part of your vision, you gain a huge competitive advantage.

Your organization has a sustainable competitive advantage if:

• You live and work unhampered by the problems of poor online communication.

• Employees are not consumed by sorting out important information from piles of garbage notes.

• Coworkers are not focused on one-upmanship and internal turf wars.

• Leaders know how to use electronic communications to build trust.

Once you learn the essentials of electronic body language, you will be more adept at decoding incoming messages and better sense how your messages are interpreted by others.

You will understand the secret code written “between the lines” of messages and enhance your online communications in your sphere of influence. Next week I will share some additional principles to keep in mind when communicating electronically.

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