Holdsway meeting image

Let the hands do the talking

22nd April 2021

“Where body language conflicts with the words that are being said, the body language will usually be the more ‘truthful’ in the sense of revealing true feelings.”

The Holdsway website features hands throughout, representing the reliability and hands-on helping nature of the interim executives we have successfully placed over the past fifteen years.   Our research with Surrey Business School (1) identified core competences of successful interim executives, which include engaging people, communication, and emotional intelligence.  Building on our last blog, on the role of body language, we focus on the critical role of hands in the delivery of these competences.

Successful interim executives all use their hands for both conscious and unconscious gestures.  This form of non-verbal communication provides a fundamental component of language that contributes meaningful and unique information to a spoken message and reflects the speaker’s underlying knowledge and experiences. Gesture provides a unique window into a speaker’s mind, providing a direct link between cognition and communication (2, 3) and can indicate otherwise hidden feelings and thoughts.

Using your hands when talking can reinforce, complement, or accentuate your message (4), tells others if you care, if you’re being truthful, and how well you’re listening.  When your gestures and signals match the words you are saying, they increase trust, understanding and help build relationships.  Trust, critical to relationship formation and longevity, is established through congruence.  Congruence is a perfect alignment between what is being said and the body language that accompanies it.  For highly effective communicators of change like interims, being congruent matters for people to be engaged.

Recent research (5) demonstrates that matching hand gestures to the spoken word increases the likelihood of the words being heard accurately.  Further, certain hand gestures can signal personal characteristics including extraversion and dominance.  People who speak with gestures tend to be evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic (6).  Conversely, if a speaker’s gestures are not in full agreement with the spoken words, this incongruence leads to confusion and mistrust and creates tension.  If the listener does not trust the speaker or think that the speaker believes what he or she is saying, then what the speaker is saying isn’t heard.

Ultimately, hands provide the perfect illustration of the mind-body connection.  Hand gestures help all of us take what is in our mind and make it intelligible to others.  We also gather information from others’ body language as well as from the spoken word because body language is crucial in helping communicate emotions and motivations.

It is because of the importance of body language, that Holdsway personally interviews interim executives, before including them on a client short-list – often many times and over a number of years.  This is because we believe listening to the words said, and seeing the accompanying hand gestures, speaks volumes about an interim’s ability to communicate with clarity, build relationships and their personal integrity and emotional intelligence.  Our clients know that Holdsway’s assessment of its interim executive network considers all important competences required by leaders of change.  The most successful interims are often more than a “safe pair of hands”.

Mary Murphy, MSc Psychology

Partner, Holdsway


(1) Woods, S. A., Diprose, N., Murphy-Diprose, M., & Thomas, G. (2020). Effective interim leadership and management: development of a cyclical model of interim assignments. Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance7(2), 173–190.

(2) Clough, S., & Duff, M. C. (2020). The Role of Gesture in Communication and Cognition: Implications for Understanding and Treating Neurogenic Communication Disorders. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 14, 1–22.

(3) Goldin-Meadow, S., & Wagner, S. (2005). How our hands help us learn. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(5), 234–241.

(4) Wertheim, E. G. (n.d.) The Importance of Effective Communication. Northeastern University, Massachusetts.

(5) Bosker, H. R., & Peeters, D. (2021). Beat gestures influence which speech sounds you hear. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288(1943), 20202419.

(6) Koppensteiner, M., & Siegle, G. (2017). Speaking through the body. Politics and the Life Sciences36(2), 104–113.

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