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Desert Highway
Thoughtful writing authored and shared by members of of the Thinking Collaborative community to support others on the journey.

Sustaining the Journey

Gestures Revisited

Authored By:

Carolee Hayes


March 21, 2023

If you’ve ever been told you talk too much with your hands, to put your hands at your sides, or to sit on your hands, this is for you! In her recent publication, The Extended Mind: Thinking Outside the Brain, Annie Murphy Paul provides thought provoking information about gestures and thinking. The information is particularly relevant for

• teachers explaining concepts and processes,

• presenters wanting to influence an audience,

• collaborators who want to communicate more clearly,

• and for coaches noticing BMIRS as a means for understanding their coachees.

Murphy Paul states,

Gestures exert a powerful impact on how we understand and remember our interactions with others, but its influence operates largely below our awareness.

Kindle Edition, p.71

We might even begin to think about gestures as a second language, one which represents thinking with our bodies. Below is a sampling of some of the interesting ideas presented for each of the leadership roles listed above.


Gesturing is a precursor to speech, often unconscious. As we begin to develop initial understanding of something, our gestures provide a means to consider our initial perspective. We gesture more when we are introduced to a new idea and are trying to make sense of it.

Teachers can think of gesturing as scaffolding for more complex understanding. As we face more challenging problems, we gesture even more than when we already understand a concept or problem. As understanding grows, language becomes more precise and gestures are more precise and aligned with language.

Murphy Paul shares research that shows people who can talk and gesture about complex topics reason better than when they are asked to write about them. We may find making and seeing our thinking assists us in forming the language to express it.

So, the bottom line for teachers is to encourage gesturing, especially when introducing new content where language may not be fully developed relevant to that content. Teacher gestures may also assist students in understanding content for which they have yet to acquire language.


The skillful use of gestures in presenting is familiar to Thinking Collaborative trainers. Murphy Paul states that gestures, skillfully used, increase the likelihood of an audience receiving an intended message. This includes gesturing to capture meaning as well as “beat gestures,” the hand motions that emphasize a particular point.

Asking the audience to repeat gestures also assists participants in engaging their thinking and helping them to remember information. Without gesture, we are less able to remember ideas and explain how they fit into our thinking.


As stated earlier, we can be more convincing to others when we use gestures, which assist colleagues in understanding our viewpoint. Our hands usually precede language and allow us to clarify and correct before we say anything, a useful process when trying to share one’s ideas.

Also, many scientific breakthroughs have been the result of talking through ideas using more and more adaptive gestures to represent emerging thinking between colleagues. Gesture encourages us to experiment with our ideas and reshape them both individually and collegially.

People who are fluent in sign language have been found to have superior ability to make meaning of gesture, as a result of repeated practice. Jane Ellison and I were appreciative of this capacity in a Cognitive Coaching seminar we taught to a group of deaf students. On the first day, the word, holonomy, had to be finger spelled as there was no sign for it. By the fifth or sixth day, a new sign had emerged from the group members shared gesturing.

The power of gestures is important to remember in online conferences when we often only have visual access to faces and heads. Murphy Paul states,

…people who gesture as they teach on video…speak more fluently and articulately, make fewer

mistakes, and present information in a more logical and intelligible fashion.

Kindle Edition, p. 81


Gestures are often unconscious “foreshadows” of our thinking for which we’ve yet to find words. Sometimes our gestures align perfectly with our words and other times they are a mismatch. Gestures can offer insights into thinking for which a person might not yet have the words to speak the thoughts.

…our hands “know” what we’re going to say before our conscious minds do…

Kindle Edition, p.72.

A skilled coach will offer pauses when gestures are visible, even if speech is not occurring. These may be some of the most important BMIRS to observe. It is also important to observe for alignment in words and gestures and offer paraphrases and questions when misalignment is seen.

Coaches should also pay careful attention to their own gestures, matching for rapport. The coach offers paraphrases and questions with gestures which represent ideas to summarize, organize, and synthesize the thinking of the coachee.

Given the learning we gain from Annie Murphy Paul about the importance of gestures, we can stop sitting on our hands and start watching more carefully for how we offer gestures and what we might learn from the gestures of others!

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