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last update:  19 Aug 2005 

Non-verbal communication - a solution for complex group settings -

Talking with words - and hands

Since 1989, each year somewhere in Europe the Ecotopia festival takes place. A three week summer university / action camp gathering between 400 and 800 young people from all over Europe. Three weeks of workshops and "living the alternative". All decisions are taken in consensus, involving often over 200 people in discussions, speaking well over 15 different languages. And still it works. In Ecotopia - and during well over a hundred workshops and meetings in which we as facilitators from the ZHABA facilitators collective were involved during the last twelve years, tools and dynamics were developed to tackle the problems connected with this kind of multi-culturality and multi-linguality.

Basis for all of these tools is awareness of the power-relations within the process, and a strong will to have all participating in it. In group-settings, power balances are delicate. Verbal communication, for instance, is easily abused for replacing arguments with power - for the sake of hidden interests, or completely unconsciously.

Verbal communication - speech - valuable as it may be, is also a source of a lot of waste of efficiency within communication processes. Saying: "I agree with the former speaker and I would like to stress his remark on …., because I also witnessed….." can take easily four minutes. Precious time in a one-hour time-slot. Whereas nothing more may have been meant than "Yes - that's a great idea".

Verbal communication shows another drawback: only one person can be allowed to speak at the time, whereas the others need to follow the process.

Apart from this, much information is lost in verbal communication. The audience retains no more than around 20% of the information, which it can hear only (see the learning heads).

Our collective - the ZHABA facilitators collective - comprises facilitators from seven different European countries, working in many different communication settings in which power balances play a key-role (like gender, in-crowds, geography, skin-color, age, experience and so on). We work mainly on the grass-root level in the civil society sector (environmental, human rights, gender, refugee, minority and health NGOs), but also participate on the international level, giving facilitation support to international conferences, seminars, trainings and board meetings. In these settings, we have found possibilities to deal with this problem.

Verbal communication - the conventional solution

Seminars, training, workshops - but also team-meetings, planning sessions… People "need to talk out" different problems, analyses and solutions. On top of this we have learned to share experiences, systemize and analyse with use of large sheets of paper, post-its, writing walls and so on. All these forms of communication are based on the use of words. Spoken or written words. Words as symbols for the problems we are attacking, the solutions we pursue and processes we find to do so.

Words and spoken or written language are the most powerful tools we know for communication. Still - when thrown back on only verbal communication (e-mail meetings, discussions over telephone) - with the non-verbal communication cut out - we discover that non-verbal communication plays a huge role in the understanding of the words we write or speak. A soft voice-tone can make a hard line of words a humorous bit of irony. Hands can stress the importance of a side-sentence. Non-verbal signs can make the difference between being for or against. A face can indicate delicate nuances not traceable by the crude contours of language.

In conventional settings we take this non-verbal communication for granted as under-liner, highlighter, bold- or italic-maker of the spoken word-processor of our mouth.

This sub-conscious non-verbal toolkit coming with the conventional verbal methods of communication can, however, also be misunderstood. For reasons of unclarity, for instance. Or for cultural reasons: I remember very well my first workshop with Albanians in 1991. It was on fundraising, and my explanation of some basics of how international funds are working were met with four shaking heads… I thought I made a mistake. I did not understand why what I said was wrong and felt increasingly insecure… I asked what was wrong - and one of the group who was for the second time abroad said: "Nothing! You are very clear. But… we Albanians shake our heads when we say "yes"!"

When sub-conscious non-verbal communication can make such a difference, what a great tool conscious non-verbal communication might be!

Conscious non-verbal communication - enriching communication processes

In an on-line brainstorm on how to deal with multi-lingual sessions during the conferences of the International Association of Facilitators, John Powderly - a British facilitator - opted for the use of an artificial language, that could be learned by everybody: maybe a kind of sign-language, like spoken by deaf people.

A wonderful moment for me to present the kind of sign-language we already use for over a decade in all kind of meeting and workshop sessions.

During the Ecotopia festivals and many of the workshops we conducted, we already use for over fifteen years a system of sign language to support the facilitation process. It originates from many traditions, including Native American traditions, the consensus tradition in the US and German anti-nuclear and peace movements, educacion popular practices and old Scandinavian tribal traditions.

The sign languages for deaf people are very complicated fully-grown real languages, and therefore impossible for a group to learn in a few hours. Even a "short-hand" version of 100 words or signals would be difficult to learn within reasonable time.

It is possible, however, to learn five to seven common hand-signs. In group settings with as little as six or as much as 250 people, we use a standard set of five and a changing addition of two to five signs.

The standard set includes signs for

  • I would like to say something
  • I agree with you
  • I oppose / I block the decision
  • I have a suggestion to improve the process
  • It is clear what you want to say, for me you don't have to continue with this point

Details can be found on a special page.

Amongst the variable signs are:

  • I am confused.
  • Slow down, you talk too fast / we need time for translation
  • Speak up, I can't hear you well / other participants, please, be more silent
  • Beware, this feels like a personal attack

During sessions, you will see suddenly 65% of the people waving their hands when a very intelligent proposal is made, meaning: "Great idea! If everybody supports this, we don't have to discuss longer - let's do it!" Urging the facilitator to cut short the speaker and test for consensus for this proposal. Or suddenly a T-sign goes up, and the facilitator invites the signer to make her suggestion, which could be: "I notice that we are talking in circles for already 40 minutes. I propose that we split in groups of three and each group comes up with two possible solutions to this problem ten minutes from now". Or after a short discussion, the group seems to reach consensus on a decision, suddenly two fists fly up and someone shouts "block". Instead of whiling some minutes more with the possible advantages of the decision, the group is focused on a few very important drawbacks. After some more debate, waving hands around the group indicate that a solution is found which everybody can carry.

Group dynamics of non-verbal communication

As already mentioned, power relations play a crucial role in the workshops, seminars, strategic planning sessions and other communication processes we, as ZHABA facilitators, are involved in. We firmly believe, that the most optimal solutions and plans are developed, when the knowledge, experience, skills and insights of everybody involved in the process are taken into account. Disturbed power-relations (some people being more important than others) will disturb communication processes away from optimal solutions or plans.

Against this background, the conscious use of non-verbal communication in group-processes can have a lot of advantages.

  • It speeds up discussion

Hand signs can take the place of longer verbal expressions ["I agree with what the previous speaker said" takes five seconds to speak out]. Several people can indicate their opinion at the same time without requiring speaking time. But also people that require a lot of words (and time) to express their views can be helped to gain a feeling for when their point is made - and thus increase their communication efficiency (by use of the "It is clear what you want to say"-sign). Blocks will focus the discussion on the real troublesome issues. Process suggestions will bring in more efficiency.

  • It helps the group to take control of the process itself

Everybody in the group can be active on every moment, without disrupting the process. Saying "hey, speak up a little!" draws defensive attention to the disrupter. Making a "speak-up" sign will make the speaker maybe a little anxious, but it is easier to adapt to it (without loosing face!).

When accepted in the group it improves participation of all - it even empowers those in low-power positions like minority language groups, people with a low voice-volume, women, young people, elderly people, dark-skinned people…

  • It helps the facilitator to keep overview over the process (indications when consensus is upcoming, indications of the need for clarification, etc.)

Process facilitation is a difficult job. Seeing whether consensus exists in conventional settings, would need either a round of opinions, or a formal-feeling straw-poll (asking people to raise their hands if they are in favor). To do this while someone is speaking, will be felt as a rude interruption. In a setting where non-verbal communication is accepted, waving hands will encourage the speaker to finish and give the facilitator the chance to make the real probe for consensus.

  • When well accepted and prepared in the group, it mobilizes opinions in a non-offensive way

Imagine for instance a native speaker, that speaks very fast. The slow-down-sign can influence her to slow-down, without having to feel embarrassed that everybody saw her "mistake".

  • It is easy to use, also for those who are shy, or who cannot participate as active because of a (minority) language handicap or fear of speaking in groups.

Disadvantages also exist:

  • Also non-verbal communication (like hand-signs) can be used to abuse power.

If someone who already has a position of authority (a funder in the group, an old professor, an Western foreigner) is abusing the T-sign to give a remark on the content, it needs a strong facilitator to stop him. If not, this authoritarian person received another tool of power, to make others shut-up. To be clear: the T-sign may only be used to make remarks to improve the process. Because the group process benefits from good process suggestions, the facilitator will give the maker of the sign directly the possibility to speak. If the remark is on content, in an equal-power process, there is no way of telling or knowing that your suggestion will be more important than that of others - therefore you should wait until it is your turn to speak. Breaking through this line discards other speakers as unimportant (less powerful).

Another situation of abuse of power is a block of consensus without wanting to discuss the backgrounds, nor wanting to stand aside (and let the process flow further in spite of doubts). This abuse is more closely linked with the process of consensus than with the use of hand-signs. It, nevertheless, poses a severe risk to the success of the process. Strong and fair facilitation is needed to avoid these kinds of situations - addressing the abuse of power with the group as soon as it pops up.

  • Some people feel shy doing "weird things with their hands".

This is not part of our culture. Training the hand signs in the group can help overcome some of this shyness. The facilitator has to motivate the use of hand signs actively in the start of the process, by soliciting people to show their agreement, their discontent, their ideas with their hands. Also active explanation of how we could have saved time, when some interventions would have been made by hand signs instead of spoken word, will help people to overcome sign-shyness.

  • "You are only playing games. This is not the real stuff".

We received these kinds of remarks a lot. Especially from so-called Western experts. In all cases it was used by people who saw some of their power dwindle by the introduction of participative methods - and especially hand signs. This is a very difficult problem to overcome. Verbally based power-games are a strongly rooted culture in many Western political scenes as well as in civic movements. They are fixed in so-called professional formalisms (strict agenda's, strictly kept fixed speaking orders, presidents with the power of deciding the formulation of decisions and bringing them into a formal vote, strictly defined voting mechanisms). The only thing that can be done against these kinds of remarks is asking for a try-out period.

Basically, the whole formalised theatre of conventional decision and meeting processes is nothing but a game to keep up a claim of democracy - whereas in reality the process does not allow for democracy because of lack of time, and therefore it offers larger possibilities for those who hold power positions within the group. The time-gain and increased participation brought by the conscious use of non-verbal communication brings the group closer to democratic relationships, as well as to higher quality decisions (better founded in the common experience, less likely to trigger opposition).


The most important conclusion of our findings is, that the introduction of consciously used non-verbal communication techniques can win time during the meeting process, can enlarge participation by all participants and can add to the democratic value and the quality of the decision processes and actual decisions. This can be done in seminars, workshops and meetings of 6 to around 250 people.

The use of these techniques, for example hand-signs, needs to be accompanied by skilled process facilitation to avoid skepticism with the methods and optimize the effects. 

Acknowledgements: In preparing this article, I am highly indebted to my colleague facilitators in Central and Eastern Europe, who helped so much in developing solutions for the problem of multi-linguality in group dynamics. Especially the facilitators of the ZHABA facilitator collective and all the creative young Ecotopian spirits within EYFA. Paxus Calta was the first to introduce me in the wonders of sign language in group-settings. I also want to thank John Powderly who started an intensive discussion on this subject in the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), and Marjolijn Sondorp of ZHABA, Beret Griffith and Gilberto Lazan of the IAF for their motivation.

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