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Gestures of Conversational Presence



This is one of the most remarkable conversational innovations I've seen. It has the simplicity -- and the potential depth -- of council circles. That's not surprising, since both practices are friendly to Spirit and Silence. These "Gestures of Conversational Presence" can be used by any couple or group to communicate to each other their state of mind-and-heart during a conversation. The gestures aren't used constantly; rather, with practice, they flow into conversation effortlessly and creatively, as needed. They can make a big difference in how the conversation feels and progresses. I recommend them highly. -- Tom Atlee


Gestures of Conversational Presence

by Rosa Zubizarreta and Michael Bridge


(written for Communities magazine, Winter 2000)


When Michael and I first met, we discovered that we shared a passion for exploring how the use of language affects our consciousness, not just as individuals but also in terms of group dynamics. For the last three years, we have been exploring a simple method of hand gestures as a way to deepen and transform communication. While the gestures are very simple, their use implies a profound shift in the habitual attitudes towards speech that we carry as members of our "modern", "civilized" culture. We have found that the gestures offer an alternative to the unconscious patterns of domination and alienation that tend to permeate verbal communication. They serve to strengthen our inner voice, and help us regain a sense of the sacred in our communication with one another.

In one-on-one or small group settings, the gestures can serve to alter the pace and rhythm of conversation, thus equalizing power between those who are more verbal and those who are less so. Instead of focusing on what any one person has to say, our attention expands to include the quality of what is taking place between us.

In larger groups, the gestures can be used as a simple feedback system for the speakers when incorporated as an enhancement to the existing conversational arrangement. Or, more radically, they can be used as part of a movement towards "group mind" -- that state of synergy where our individual creativity and our collective process are experienced as profoundly interdependent.

Here are some of the gestures, to get you started in your own explorations. Note: As with any living language, there can be multiple shades of meaning, depending upon the context.

Offering Presence. Palms together, in the traditional gesture of prayer. Can be used as a non-verbal greeting, in order to frame our verbal communication within a larger context. This gesture is also used to convey the message that "I have full attention to offer," especially in response to the next gesture, "The Stirring".

The Stirring. Hands clasped, two index fingers pointing upward. Can be used to signal that "there is something stirring within". We tend to view this sign as a way of acknowledging and honoring what is taking place inside one's self, rather than as a "request" for "permission" to speak. (The latter perspective tends to reinforce the paradigm where the listener is "giving away" their power.) At the same time, a speaker who observes someone else making this sign may choose to respond by offering their attention, either immediately or at the next opportune moment.

Retreat. Hands fully clasped. Used to signal that one's attention is withdrawing or becoming unavailable. The speaker may continue to speak if he or she so wishes, but the listener shall not be held accountable for hearing any of it.

Pause. Hands clasped, pinkies pointing upwards. Used to request a pause, or to signal a brief interruption. For example, it can be used by a listener as a substitute for: "I'm really interested in what you are saying right now, and I need to take a break to use the bathroom." It could also mean that I am requesting a pause to process, and/or inviting you to take a breath.

Alternatively, this sign might be used by a speaker to signal, "I see that something is stirring within you, and I am just about to reach the end of my train of thought."

Requesting Another's Voice. Hands clasped, index and middle fingers of both hands pointing towards another person. Can be used as a substitute for: "It seems John hasn't said anything in a while. I wonder if he has something that he'd like to share." Or, if we see someone making the "Retreat" sign, we might use the "Requesting" sign to inquire about what is happening with them.

As stated earlier, signs can have various meanings, depending on the context. For example, if we are feeling overwhelmed by someone's words, we might make the "Retreat" sign, followed by a "Requesting" sign pointed towards the speaker. In that case, the "Requesting" sign becomes an invitation to move to a deeper level of communication, somewhat equivalent to, "I am having a hard time following all of your words, and am wondering what the feelings are underneath or what it is you are really wanting."

For us, the use of the signs is part of a larger process that we call the "Ritual of Sacred Encounter". In a universe of infinite possiblities, every encounter can be regarded as a miraculous event. The use of the signs reminds us of the dimension of wonder in every meeting. We find the use of creative ritual in communication helpful for developing greater balance between words and Silence. In turn, this balance is an essential part of the larger balance that needs to be restored between civilization and Nature. After all, our civilization can be viewed as our collective conversation. And, from a mystic's perspective, Nature can be seen as the conversation between everything and everything else.

Since our work places a great deal of emphasis on the balance between words and silence, it is important to acknowledge that not all "silence" is healthy. The Silence we mean is the restful kind, the one that invites us to hear the quieter voices, that allows us to hear the trees grow and the birds sing. We do NOT mean the kind of silence that is the result of intimidation and oppression. (To distinguish between the two, we now call the second kind of silence "dysquiet", thanks to the inspiration of our friend Tom Atlee.)

In closing, we'd like to emphasize that we welcome your collaboration in this shared endeavor, and we'd love to hear any stories about your experiences using these or your own signs to deepen communication.

With all best wishes,

Rosa Zubizarreta and Michael Bridge

C o p y r i g h t 2 0 0 0 R o s a Z u b i z a r r e t a a n d M i c h a e l B r i d g e
M a y b e r e p r o d u c e d f r e e l y f o r n o n - c o m m e r c i a l u s e o n l y ,
a s l o n g a s c o p y r i g h t n o t i c e i s i n c l u d e d .