Hand signals are an essential part of our communication and decision-making system, especially for important decisions that affect many people.
Think about it. If we’re sitting in a big circle, and one person wants to find out how the others feel about a proposal, what’s fastest? Asking everyone to speak up? Asking everyone to write on sticky-notes or fill in a survey? Those ways are fine if you want details. But if you just want a quick temperature check, or test for agreement, then hand signals are superior! Because it takes just 10 seconds for everyone to hold up a hand signal and see what everyone else thinks.
Here are the main hand signals we use when making decisions in a big group (or testing for agreement on something):
Thumb up = Yes! I actively support this.
Thumb sideways = More discussion needed, I’m missing info.
This doesn’t mean I disagree, it just means that I need clarification.
Thumb down = No! I block this. But I’m willing to discuss.
This means I understand the proposal, but I don’t support it. Obviously I need to be willing to explain why. Sometimes the No is pretty definite, other times a minor tweak can turn the No into a Yes. Either way, further discussion is needed before we can decide.
Fist forward = I stand aside. I don’t need to be involved. Do whatever you want.
Not all decisions affect everyone, so the fist-forward signal essentially gives the rest of the group permission to decide without me.
The fist-forward signal allows us to visually distinguish between “I need more info” vs “I don’t care about this”. The thumb-sideways people need to be heard, the fist-forward people don’t. We’ve borrowed this from the Crisp consensus model 2.1.
Discussion signals aren’t needed for small group discussions (like six or less), but they are REALLY useful when we have 25 people sitting in a circle arguing about a pending decision or new idea!
One hand up = I want to speak (put me in line)
If you have something to say, and someone else is already speaking, and others seem to want to talk too, then put your hand up and wait your turn.
Two hands up = I have an important fact (let me me speak ASAP!)
Sometimes you have a short concise piece of information that everyone should take into account before continuing the conversation (or making the decision). Yet you don’t want to interrupt the current speaker. In that case two hands up puts you first in the speaking queue.
Circling finger = +1 (I agree with what I’m hearing right now)
The circling finger is a silent way of saying “Amen bro!! I’m right wit’cha on dat!”
Feels pretty good to see a bunch of circling fingers as you present your opinion on something (as opposed to arms crossed and frowning…)!
How a big-group decision is made using hand signals
For big-group settings a facilitator is usually needed to support the decision making process. The details will vary, but here’s a typical scenario for an important decision that will affect many people:
- Someone (the decision “driver”) brings up a concrete proposal (usually coming out of an open-space session)
- A first voting round is made using the decision signals.
- If all thumbs are up, the decision is made! Some may stand aside, because they aren’t affected. That’s fine.
- If there is lots of disagreement the decision is usually postponed. The driver has more work to do before the decision can be made.
- Otherwise any people with thumb sideways are heard. If necessary, the proposal is adjusted based on the information or questions that came up.
- Any blocker (thumb down) is checked if still blocking. Normally a block takes too long to resolve in a big circle. The blocker(s) and the driver are asked to make this an open-space topic (or similar).
- The proposal is discussed in smaller circles.
- The proposal is updated and taken up again for decision. Similar procedure as above.
Big decisions sometimes require several iterations, but it’s usually worth it. Not only do we get a better decision, we get stronger buy-in.
See How we make decisions for more info on this.
Remember – consensus doesn’t mean everyone agrees! It just means everyone who is affected understands and will support the decision.