Hand Game, Management’s Game

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“One possible etymology of the word “management” comes from the Latin “manus”, meaning “hand”. Indeed, the manager covers the underlying idea of “taking a team in hand” and leading it to accomplish their collective goals”.

For our ON-Business Column, French Human Rights Artist, Academic and UNESCO’s Artist for Peace Guila-Clara Kessous, presents an insightful short “manual” for negotiation professionals.

By Guila-Clara Kessous, PhD, Harvard University

“What do I do with my hands?” The lost look of the man or woman I’m coaching is staring at me with an air of supplication. The answer is not long in coming: “Would it be an idea to cut them off?” At least I get the reaction I wanted: a smile, which brings the tension down. In negotiation, the most revealing non-verbal information is always legible in facial expressions and hand positioning. Without making a catalogue of “good postures”, here are some avenues of exploration to better understand what is at stake in front of you, and especially within you.

Taking Things in Hand

One possible etymology of the word “management” comes from the Latin “manus”, meaning “hand”. Indeed, the manager covers the underlying idea of “taking a team in hand” and leading it to accomplish their collective goals. Whether horizontal or vertical management is involved, it is interesting to realize how important the relationship with the hands are in all corporate exchanges where the question of leadership comes into play. Negotiation is a perfect illustration of this. Wondering “in whose hands” I am amounts to wondering whether, as an employee, I am “in good hands”–those of my superior. Likewise, as a line manager, it is interesting to ask the question of who is “in my hands” about my employees, or even who I have “on hand” in my team as a resource person. Because the question of management touches on the hand, it touches on action, the “power to do”, or even on “power” for that matter. It is the same in negotiation. Is it a situation where “my hands are tied”, where my margin for action is low and my power of influence is reduced? Or, on the contrary, do I “have my hand” in this negotiation, and am I in a position of strength where I am able to express my will? These expressions, while certainly colourful, are not neutral with regard to the relationship with the hands, and it is not surprising that the codification of managerial relations, especially when it comes to negotiation, is done through a “handshake”.

A Frank Handshake

In the large Harvard University lecture hall where Marjorie North teaches the Executive Communication Skills course, people spend half an hour looking for ways to shake hands. There are a hundred of us, and everyone gets a handshake from the teacher, who describes the act as “soft,” “energetic,” “flat,” or “aggressive.” What’s exciting is taking context into consideration. Most of them work for governments and come to learn about different cultural practices, knowing that they are destined for representative positions. Thus, future ambassadors are sent by their states to seek a certain universality in their future communications and negotiations. We learn that there is no such thing as a universal handshake. For an Asian, a handshake must be respectful, because touching the body of the other is a real intrusion into privacy. This practice gives rise to a handshake that a European or American could describe as “soft” or “supple”, since the interlocutor refuses to exert any kind of control over his or her partner from the outset. On the contrary, a good handshake, from the American or European point of view, is a dynamic gesture: the challenge is to show your partner positive energy from the start (see also the article: “Getting a Yes, Sí, Ja, Hai or Da”). Let us recall that the American-style “hug”, where the two parties embrace each other by patting each other on the back, goes back to a traditional process of checking that the latter is not carrying any weapon by fumbling their hand on the back of the other. In this perspective, shaking hands is a reminder of the equality of both parties, who agree not to resort to means of coercion.

My advice for a frank handshake is to remember that frankness comes from a certain authenticity of the individual who is able to adapt to the culture of another. There is no recommended speed to “draw”. There must be harmony between the two parties. Whether you reach out your hand first or respond to an outstretched hand, you know very quickly that once contact has been established with this open and firm hand that is yours, you must adapt yourself to the strength that is offered to you. If the hand of the other party is soft, adapt by responding with the same intensity, even if this goes against what you might consider natural. If, on the contrary, the hand is firm and dynamic in the way it grips yours, know how to respond immediately and not be afraid to keep your hand tight, even if it is a little longer than you are used to. This Macron/Trump style interaction will make it seem that you have accepted the challenge and will be well received by the secondary party. Feel free to practice with friends and family.

To The (Not So) Innocent, Hands Full

Many negotiators arrive at their meetings with a lot of paperwork. The left hand grasps a filled file and the right is already incidentally extended towards the other, before quickly clinging to the temple of glasses to remove them once seated. Without making generalities, it is easy to say that anyone who needs to keep their hands busy during a negotiation–be it in the fixed form of holding something (pocket, backrest, bezel, or stage podium, among others) or in the form of parasitic movement (playing with fingers on the table, biting one’s nails, fiddling with a ring or a watch)–needs energetic support and maintenance. Whether conscious or unconscious, this way of neutralizing the hands is interesting because it is an action derivative of what can be experienced as passive in negotiation: listening. Listening is essential in negotiation. It is in fact the one who listens the most in a negotiation that has the best chance of winning it.

Listening, when it is sincere and respectful, is by no means passive. In fact, we talk about active listening, that is, listening that allows action to move forward. But the one who is listening is also portraying the image of listening to the one who speaks. Whoever uses these derivations is in need of anchoring their hands in a certain state, which does not allow them to show the hands completely. But not showing is hiding! In order to negotiate well, one must dare to “show a white paw” and, to do so, accept (at least at the beginning of the negotiation) to simply put one’s hands on the table or on one’s knees so that the other understands that there is nothing to hide. In a negotiation, it is not so much a matter of building trust at the start, but of deconstructing the distrust that naturally sets in when power is at stake in a relationship. Agreeing to let yourself be seen and to let your hands be seen may be seen as a sign of weakness, but it is the only intercultural way for the other person to realise your effort to be authentic and your willingness to enter into a relationship of sincere politeness.

The Heart On The Hand

As far as posture is concerned, the most common recommendations for successful negotiation are to not be too emotional, to not show too much emotion. However, this does not mean that you have to completely disconnect from others and appear robotic in your words and gestures. If hands must deconstruct mistrust by daring to show themselves, this does not mean that they should remain glued to the table or on their knees. There are a thousand and one possible variations in hand gestures. You have to be able to make them “take off” at some point. They usually take off on their own, acting naturally, when you stop focusing on them and are with the other person.

The generosity that the expression “heart on hand” implies in negotiation has nothing to do with what you’re going to drop as money in the process, but has to do with a generosity of presence to the other, what I call “presential generosity”. The more you are going to increase this presence to and for the other, and especially the more you are going to show to them, the more they are going to agree to give back. The ballet of the hands will take place naturally if you are in a conversational setting with the aim of finding a solution with the other, not against them. You will avoid gestures that can be very misinterpreted during a negotiation, such as “hand washing” (rubbing your hands together), which can give the impression that you are being venal. We should also avoid gestures that may mean the opposite of what we mean in the other person’s culture. This is the case of the famous V of victory made with the palm of the hand towards oneself, which means victory for a German, the number two for an American, and a finger of honour for a Briton. As a general rule, one should therefore avoid separating the fingers too much or showing too much with the index finger, especially in intercultural negotiations. Filming is a technique that all specialists recommend. As long as you do not expect to see the image that you impose on those who negotiate with you, you will not be able to correctly find a posture that is in line with what you are saying, and consequently, you will be unable to achieve congruence.

About Guila-Clara Kessous

Clara Guila Kessous
Guila-Clara Kessous

Guila-Clara Kessous, PhD. is a research professor, a coach, and a UNESCO Artist for Peace. Recipient of a doctorate under Elie Wiesel’s direction, she is using theatrical techniques to help suffering populations (survivors of genocide and human rights violations) better express themselves and have a stronger impact on new generations. She is also certified in positive psychology by Harvard University Professor Tal Ben Shahar and accompanies people to achieve stronger resilience in times of crisis.  She deals with issues of positive leadership, crisis communication, and managerial posture using theatrical techniques and role-playing. Following the coaching of suffering populations, she accompanies personalities, executive committees, senior executives, and managers in crisis contexts in France and abroad. Today, she is working with healthcare personnel, ranging from executives to nurses, to provide coaching and counseling to those serving at the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.


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