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Nonverbal expressions, like words (see Facilitate Meaning, Not Words), connote multiple messages.

After you finish this article, you will be strongly tempted to embrace the MG RUSH recommendation—ie; keep your elbows tucked in, your hands below your heart, and keep them open, facing up. Some would call this approach, keeping your hands to yourself.

Nonverbal Expressions: How to (Not) Gesture while FacilitatingFor example, extending the index and little fingers upward, with a fist shaped as a “V” (with the middle and ring fingers tucked down into the palm, along with the thumb) can signify victory or good luck in the Americas while it is considered a vulgar insult in Italy.

A single thumb up, commonly used to express “all right” in the United States, counts as the number one in Germany, the number five in Japan, and is seen as a vulgar insult in Afghanistan, among other places (akin to the middle finger prone upward in the United States).

Nonverbal Expressions: How to (Not) Gesture while FacilitatingScuba divers universally acknowledge the clasping of the thumb and index finger into a circle (or, “AOK”) as the buddy signal that all is fine. The circle will be perceived as vulgar insult in Russia and Italy. However, it signifies to “pay me” in Japan and displays a sense of “worthless” in France.

Yes or No?

Even a simple nod of the head from side to side typically signifies “no” or “I’m not in agreement” in the United State.  However, it may signify “yes” or “no problem” in India and elsewhere. The slight vertical nod of the head up and down signifies “I’m OK with it” in the United States. But it may signify “no” or “I don’t see it” in Greece and elsewhere.

While nonverbal cues are intended to simplify understanding, it is rather apparent that they can obfuscate consensus in a multi-cultural setting. As with everything, context is critical to understanding, and the role of the facilitator is to police context on behalf of the participants—so be careful, and keep your hands to yourself.


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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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  1. Hi, thank you for your resources.
    Just one quick correction: the one thumb up gesture is not a vulgar sign in Brazil. It actually communicates “cool”.
    Glad to help.

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