Updated: Mar 28
Paul Hills from konektis.org began to experiment using hand signals in video meeting in March 2020, to address some of the problems he was experiencing in video meetings - in particular the difficulty of reading body language clues, not all being able to speak at once (and therefore no backchannel communication) and the tendency for people to withdraw from contributing and begin to multitask. His initial idea and trials were inspired by his own use of hand signals in other environments (as a lifeguard and mentor) and observing parents and children using baby signing.
Signs used in other environments
The findings from our research into the problems with video calls led us to look at other environments in which two parties either can’t speak or won’t be heard, or both. We identified the use of hand signals as a common practice used to communicate a message, direction, need or emotion.
sign language for the deaf
baby sign language
Inspiration and insights for the hand signals
Three environments proved particularly helpful: baby sign language, beach lifeguard hand signals and the use of hand signals by an amazing mentoring organisation (A Band of Brothers).
Pre-verbal babies have limited options (crying, smiling, reaching) for responding to or communicating with their parents. Amazingly they can be taught baby signing. Parents tell moving stories of how much more connected they feel with their baby once signing is introduced. And how wonderful it must be for the baby, who you could liken to the listeners on a video call, desperate to communicate and engage more but unsure how. The message to me was clear - when you can't use words, try signs.
The insight from A Band of Brothers mentoring circles was similar. If someone is telling a story or revealing something about themselves that is very important to them, it means a lot to know others are listening and have heard you, or care for you. If a group of you are actively listening to one person, an easy way of showing you care is with a hand signal.
The insight from beach lifeguarding was that people need to be trained in and then practise the signals to use them confidently and effectively. As a lifeguard myself, I know that often the quickest, clearest way to communicate with a colleague on a rescue board 100 metres out at sea is with a hand signal. This is highly effective because we use bold, unambiguous signs that have been learned and practised and there is high trust between the lifeguard team, who use the signs with confidence.
If we are to use signs successfully during video meetings, we need to replicate some of these factors.
Learn the signs
Use them confidently
Commit to using them as a team
Concentrate on the meeting in hand - be present
Have good meetings, have fewer or shorter meetings.