Summary Contact inhibition of locomotion (CIL) is a multifaceted process that causes many cell types to repel each other upon collision. During development, this seemingly uncoordinated reaction is a critical driver of cellular dispersion within embryonic tissues. Here, we show that Drosophila hemocytes require a precisely orchestrated CIL response for their developmental dispersal. Hemocyte collision and subsequent repulsion involves a stereotyped sequence of kinematic stages that are modulated by global changes in cytoskeletal dynamics. Tracking actin retrograde flow within hemocytes in vivo reveals synchronous reorganization of colliding actin networks through engagement of an inter-cellular adhesion. This inter-cellular actin-clutch leads to a subsequent build-up in lamellar tension, triggering the development of a transient stress fiber, which orchestrates cellular repulsion. Our findings reveal that the physical coupling of the flowing actin networks during CIL acts as a mechanotransducer, allowing cells to haptically sense each other and coordinate their behaviors.