Sticking your hand up to oppression

Hand signals have become part of every meeting in some activist circles. Even when there’s no formal agreement to use them you’ll find a percentage of folk doing so anyway.

There are very good reasons to use hand signals (which I’ll recap at the end), but there are also very real dangers. I’m minded of posts I wrote a while back on groundrules and group agreements – there are good reasons to use group agreements, but as Daniel Hunter argued they can just perpetuate the oppression of the margins by the mainstream of a community, culture or group. Hand signals, the use of which is often part of a group agreement in activist circles, share that same possibility of perpetuating oppressive dynamics.

Here’s a short conversation between myself and Emily Hodgkinson, with whom I’ve co-facilitated a few times over the last year or so, and who’s background is in facilitating process work without the use of hand signals.

Matthew: Emily, you’ve recently starting working in groups where the culture includes using hand signals. And in one group we worked with we were given feedback at the end of the first day of the meeting that people wanted us to be more rigorous in our facilitation of hand signals. What has your reaction been to their use?

Emily: Well, I wouldn’t say hand signals are completely new to me – I’ve been in cultures where it’s common to raise a hand to make a point, as well as waving hands to indicate agreement. But it’s new to me to use them so extensively to try to find consensus around emotionally charged topics, and I was curious to see how it could work. My ethos as a facilitator is to bring an awareness to the dynamics that are happening which cause problems for the group, and the use of hand signals seemed to me to be a bit like pushing those dynamics ‘under the carpet’. This leaves the facilitator with merely the job of being a technician, a safe pair of hands. Perhaps most of the time that is absolutely fine, but when there is conflict or a wide diversity of opinions or communication styles, or when a group is in crisis and needs to find new solutions, sticking to one technique isn’t going to get you there. I’m constantly asking the question ‘Why does this group need facilitation in the first place? What is happening that is un-facilitative?’

Matthew: Why do you think hand signals themselves are a problem, when they’re widely seen as such an effective technique?

Emily: On reflection I don’t think the hand signals themselves need always be a problem, but their use can lead to a situation where people put up their hands to join a ‘queue’ of those wanting to ‘say their bit’, and the facilitator’s main job is to manage that list.

When a group has major differences to sort out (and it’s not always easy for any group to recognise that it does), this can result in many issues and opinions getting aired without anyone owning up to the accusations that are made. Queueing up to say your piece creates a situation where the dialogue consists almost entirely of contributions to a pot but with nobody taking the role of listener. It’s the group equivalent of talking to an imaginary friend (or foe) in your head. So you might say something quite emotional or controversial and then the next person in the queue says something completely unrelated to what you said, and your statement appears not to be acknowledged. There is no interactive dialogue, so criticisms or even ideas are not responded to directly; there is no relationship. So in a situation where accusations are being, or have been made, it is harder to directly take accountability, and the accusation continues to be spoken into thin air. You can have a situation where everyone is complaining about ‘something’ but the ‘something’ never shows up to answer the charge. In Process Work we call the ‘something’ a ‘ghost role’ and try to enable it to get represented for real in order to relieve the atmosphere and reach resolution.

Let’s say for example that a group vaguely knows that it isn’t as inclusive as it wants to be and they are having a discussion about how to change that. With the ‘stacking hands’ formula there will be lots of people saying ‘This group is not diverse enough, it should be better.’ Everyone complains about the exclusiveness but it is hard for anyone to acknowledge their part in it. The discussion remains very theoretical – about how things should be. In the mean time the minorities in the group will be sitting, quietly getting irritated with all this talk about how things should be, while no-one admits that they are being exclusive. Those who are excluded are denied an opponent to address. This is very common in all groups of course.

Matthew: Sounds terrible! So with so many downsides, why do you think a group would persist in using hand signals?

Emily: I was very impressed with many aspects of using them. I’ve seen the ‘queueing up’ procedure result in, for example, a better gender balance in those taking time to speak. It’s a vast improvement on leaving the ideal of equal participation to chance. We get to hear, fully, a far more diverse range of opinions even if we don’t like them, and this must lead to greater respect for diversity. Groups wishing to develop anti-hierarchical cultures will certainly need strong equality rules to protect those who are normally marginalised. So there’s a very reasonable fear that abandoning hand signals will result in losing our ability to ensure equal participation. However, it was still very easy for me to see who held more power and influence in the group and whose views were getting ignored. I see the rules around hand signals as a little like policing or national equality laws: as long as the law is still needed then the problem hasn’t been dealt with.

Matthew: You’ve already mentioned the facilitator as technician and police officer. So hand signals impact on the role of the facilitator?

Emily: That was very interesting. It’s too easy for both facilitator and group to slip into seeing the facilitator as simply a hired pair of hands present to ensure equal participation. I felt like a police-woman! That’s not sustainable. What happens when the facilitators aren’t there? During tea-breaks and the informal evening gossip? When and how do individuals work out what in their own behaviour needs policing? As a facilitator I find this draining, which is always a strong signal of unsustainability. Facilitation can be hard work, but it shouldn’t leave you feeling depressed. That connects to another tenet of Process Work that I find invaluable: that as a facilitator you are not an objective observer but a co-creator of what is going on. You are involved. If you are feeling or thinking something, this is information that belongs to the group; chances are someone else is thinking or feeling it too. Any personal difficulty you have with a group is partly your issue and partly theirs, and they deserve to have access to that information. Not only that but as facilitator you experience some things more strongly because of the way you are focused on the needs of the whole.

Of course you have to learn to remain involved while also detached in order to recognise these things and make them useful to the group. I’m thinking of a recent experience where I really felt an outsider in the culture of the group I was working with – I thought this was just my issue and not important. But I couldn’t shrug off the feeling and it got in the way of my being an effective facilitator. It turned out that one of the biggest problems that group had was how to deal with outsiders who complain about being excluded. Maybe if I had briefly named my problem or recognised that it was about the group, I would have been free-er to do my job and the group might have learned more about their dynamics and been able to work them out with me.

Emily: Matthew you have particular views about the way in which groups use the consensus process to reach genuinely consensus agreements. What is your view of the use of hand signals as part of that process?

Matthew: Hand signals are designed to give an equality of opportunity to participate, but in reality they just bring about an equality of opportunity to speak. What I’ve realised through in hearing your critique is that they don’t necessarily give an equality of listening. If there’s no equality of listening, of respecting the views that are aired, of empathy, then it’s all pretty hollow. Worse still it can actually mask oppression – because we use hand signals we must be fully inclusive, respectful and egalitarian – right? Wrong. Hand signals are not some kind of group dynamics panacea.

So first and foremost there’s a danger that hand signals can be a crutch, and lead to an abdication of the need to take full responsibility for our own actions – if, for example, (and it’s only appropriate in some cultures) we think interrupting isn’t a good idea, then let’s not interrupt. Should we really need a hand signal to remind us of that? And as you’ve highlighted, it leave us facilitators in a policing role – is that how we want to see ourselves?

Emily: Yes, that was exactly how I felt sometimes when facilitating in these cultures.

Matthew: Some groups have even got into the very lazy habit of equating hand signals directly with consensus decision-making. I came across a ‘Guide to Consensus’ video on YouTube recently which still leaves me spitting feathers – 3 years into the life of Climate Camp and they churn out this? No wonder they’ve struggled to reach consensus from time to time.

And like many facilitation techniques, if hand signals are used too legalistically they can have the opposite effect than desired. Instead of aiding the flow of a meeting, they can break the flow, if a speaker is required to raise a finger before speaking even though no-one else is trying to speak. If you stack the speakers in order of who raises a finger first and keep strictly to that order you may well still have a predominance of male speakers, of core group member speakers, or whatever.

So of course you need to deviate from the stack from time to time “we’ve just heard a run of voices representing one side of the debate. I know you’re next in the stack Matthew, but I’d like invite other perspectives in before we come to you”.

But more than that, you need to also have created a genuinely safe space for marginal voices to be heard, and you need to hold open the invitation for those marginal voices to be heard next. In my experience it’s pretty common for to try to deviate from the stack – to invite voices that haven’t been heard so far – and for the hands that are raised next to be those of the same old people who you’ve been hearing plenty from already. Maybe it’s a symptom of my own inability to create that genuinely safe space. Maybe it’s a symptom of the technique – it creates equality to an extent, but we don’t really want to deeply challenge the power dynamics of the group….

Emily: Yes, what you’re saying helps me to understand that there are some radically different ideas about what facilitation should be, when you mention your aim of creating a safe space for example. Creating safety is an important aim as a facilitator but when working with an ongoing group a more sustainable aim would be to help the group recognise that the space is not safe for everybody and so that they can start to take responsibility for it and to grow. For example, as someone who identifies as queer, there’s no mainstream space I would say is ever really ‘safe’ for me and you as facilitator can’t really make it safe unless you can bring heterosexist attitudes to the surface and get them transformed.

Matthew: And that very realisation – that not everyone is safe – creates a huge challenge for the group which may in turn make their space feel a lot less safe. So we need to be clear that we’re creating spaces in which it’s safe to be challenged and to be uncomfortable at times. For the mainstream of a group this is a really powerful experience even if it’s not pleasant – getting to experience a little of the discomfort that is an everyday occurrence for the margins.

And for us facilitators there’s also a challenge. This issue is the difference between creating a safe space (I’m regretting using that phrase now), and building a strong container as they’d say in direct education circles.Of course there’s also the issue of bringing our own prejudices to the surface and transforming them too.

Matthew:  I think the other issue you’ve highlighted for me is about “contributions to a pot but with nobody taking the role of listener”. As you pointed out, creating a stack also changes the dynamic of the discussion away from that of having a conversation. You might have 7 or 8 speakers in the stack awaiting their turn. There’s nothing to guarantee that what the second speaker says is in any way a reply to what the first speaker said, and so on. This lack of the normal ‘call and response’ of conversation can create an artificial environment with several effects: because it’s artificial people might not feel it necessary to offer the respect and listening that they would (hopefully) offer in conversation; the organic development of ideas is replaced by a more staccato rhythm; and no-one is actually speaking directly to anyone else, and more to the point it can seem that no-one is actually listening to anyone else because there are less of the usual cues you get in a conversation, in which the response helps you decide whether you were listened to. Instead the facilitator can be landed with the whole task of listening, reflecting and summarising to ensure people feel heard. Facilitator as technician, again.

Emily: So now we’ve both criticised an over-reliance on hand signals and it feels one-sided. What’s great about them? And how can we continue to work with them without falling into these traps and help groups who are used to these techniques address these problems without feeling they have to abandon their ideals?

Matthew: Well first and foremost, there’s the equality issue – whilst not everyone feels able or is willing to wade into a sea of voices and shout loud enough to get heard, most if not all of us can raise a finger to indicate that we want to speak. We can then relax, knowing we’ll be called on in turn and be given space to say whatever it is we want to say. There are also a few practical issues.

They can save time. The ‘silent applause’ hand signal allows us to indicate agreement with a speaker without having to join the queue and say “I’d just like to second that idea, I really think that’s something we ought to be giving serious considerations to, blah, blah, blah”. 3 seconds of wiggling our fingers instead of 3 minutes of mutually congratulatory oratory.

They can, if used with discipline, help a group focus on one topic at a time (if that’s desirable). There’s a ‘direct response’ or ‘directly relevant’ hand signal that says “what I have to say fits with the conversation we’re currently having and won’t move us on to a new topic, so it may make sense to take my point next/soon

They are useful for taking the temperature of a group around an emerging idea or proposal. Many facilitators will already use hand signals of this kind – a thumb spectrum, fist to five, or similar.

Like all facilitation techniques they’re there to serve the group’s needs and not to dictate to the group. They’re not an ideology or an identity in themselves and shouldn’t be treated as such. So it’s a case of using them when they’re the right technique for the job, and only then. And they need to be understood in the context of the values they’re used to foster – participation, contribution, equality and effectiveness. If the group doesn’t understand those values, then hand signals aren’t going to deliver them.

I suppose the question is do these benefits outweigh the disadvantages?