Leader driven harmony #1: Communication by Handshake

by Mack McKinney on December 3, 2010

Introduction to This Series

This Series is about life and business.  We will discuss tips and techniques to enhance your business; reduce your stress level; simplify and strengthen your relationships with work colleagues, family and friends; in short we are going to show you ways to smooth out your business life.

Our family has lived and worked in a lot of places in the US and Europe.  In the US we have lived in the northeast, the mid-Atlantic and the south. We have also lived in Germany and I have spent lots of time in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.  I have done business with people from the US, Europe (western and eastern), Asia, South and Central America and the Middle East.  We have worked in small villages, medium towns and large cities.  From these places and the people I’ve known and worked with, I will be bringing you world class, time-tested, practical business tips and techniques.  We have cherry picked only proven, best-of-breed techniques from successful business and government professionals.  And we will concentrate on timeless lessons and tips that span multiple cultures and are applicable now and for many years to come.  Our first topic should be of interest to anyone doing business anywhere – - – the business handshake.

Communication by Handshake

Studies have shown that people decide how they feel about you – - – basically what kind of person you are and whether they will trust you – - – within the first fifteen seconds of your first meeting.  One study found that this decision is often made within the first eight seconds!  Wow.  Think about that.  In less time than it takes to read this sentence, a person you have only just met will judge your trustworthiness and character, based on . . .  well . . . what?  On the flimsiest of “evidence” that’s what.  Let’s see what information you are “telling” people about yourself during those initial seconds.  What can they possibly experience about you in those few seconds?

Studies of interpersonal dynamics estimate that communication between individuals is 70% non-verbal and only 30% verbal.  Humans have extremely heightened senses when first meeting other people.  We primarily use four organs to stream information to the brain:  Our eyes, ears, nose and skin.  What decisions are people making in those first few seconds?  In addition to the trustworthiness decision mentioned above, people often reach almost instantaneous conclusions about your personal hygiene, general health and level of fitness, honesty, self-confidence and friendliness.  What gives a person the cues they use to make these decisions about you?

  • Handshake
  • Body posture
  • Body odor
  • Personal appearance (clothing, shoes, appearance of teeth, breath, hair, make-up, skin condition, facial hair)
  • Eye contact (or lack thereof)
  • Smile (or lack thereof)
  • Your spoken words (content, delivery, accent, pitch and grammar)
  • Physical distance you put between people

We’ll discuss each of the above “messages”, what each communicates and how to manage them all, in upcoming weeks.  But let’s start with one incredibly important “transmission” that you can change, if needed, right away – - – your handshake.  Once you know what you are communicating with your handshake you can easily change what it says about you.  In fact, the handshake is probably one of the easiest impression-makers to change.

But first let’s dispense with two common myths especially rampant among Generation Y-ers (aka Millennials):

  1. “Handshakes are for old guys.  They don’t really matter these days, not like they used to anyway.” Wrong.  They matter very much in the business world, especially in the US and Western Europe.  It is true that handshakes were recorded in ancient Egypt but even today business is still based upon trust.  And handshakes can communicate trust.  Gen-X-ers, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists take handshakes very seriously, many of them without even realizing they do so.  If you don’t think your handshake matters to others, it probably won’t.  Because YOU won’t matter much to others.
  2. “My handshake is _______ [fill in the blank yourself - strong, quick, etc.] but it is just my style. And I like it that way. It reflects my unique personality and sets me apart from others.” Wrong.  If your handshake is odd in any way, YOU will be seen as being odd and odd people don’t get much cooperation in the business world, which is still based fundamentally on trust.  Let your excellent work or your conversational skill or something else set you apart, not an odd handshake.

A predictable, firm handshake is an important tool in business, in fact, in life, in general.  A handshake is over in a few seconds yet it helps us reach a number of conclusions about the other person.  We tend to take our own personal handshake style for granted, not giving it much thought.  Yet surveys of thousands students attending Solid Thinking’s Concept Development and Project Dominance courses over the years paint a very different story:  About a third of the handshakes we have experienced from course attendees since 2004 are … well… odd.  They are memorable, which is not good.  You do not want your handshake to be remembered by the people you meet.  Your handshake is part of the entire impression that others get when you meet them.  It is part of a person’s overall impression of you and you do not want it to be remembered any more than your teeth, body odor, hairstyle, tie color, cut of your suit or anything else.  In our courses we critique each attendee’s handshake style, what it “says” about them, and then we correct it as needed.  (And we do it in such a way as to be non-threatening and without causing embarrassment).

People draw several conclusions about you just from a brief handshake:

  • Too strong a grip is often interpreted as you trying to prove your strength.  Savvy business people also recognize that a too-strong grip can mean just the opposite as well: a weak person disguising their weakness behind an artificially strong grip in a handshake.  So a weak handshake can signal either of two things, both opposites and both bad.
  • Too weak a grip (offering the limp-fingered “fish” handshake or not wrapping your fingers completely around the other person’s hand) indicates you are a weak person.  In the US, Western Europe and the Middle East, this weakness can be perceived of men or women, young or old, from any culture.  And don’t think that appearing weak is just a good negotiating ploy, encouraging the other person to underestimate you.  It doesn’t work – - – the impressions a handshake provides are often subliminal.  People don’t even realize why they have a certain impression of a person after the handshake, just that they do.  Don’t risk being labeled weak or ineffectual from a limp handshake.  (More on the woman’s handshake, both giving and receiving, a bit later).
  • A handshake that lasts too long is interpreted as a sign the person will be “clingy” in any upcoming relationship (business or personal).  When you feel the other person let go, let go.
  • A handshake that is too brief often says the person isn’t interested in a relationship with me (wants out of here).  People expect a handshake to last a minimum of 3 seconds unless there are several people shaking hands in which case 2-3 seconds is acceptable.
  • A person who rotates his hand over mine, with both our hands going from vertical to horizontal, is saying that he is probably going to be difficult to deal with (at best overly dominant and aggressive and at worst pathological)

We want a “normal”, predictable handshake because that tells others they will be dealing with a normal, predictable person:  a firm handshake is perceived as belonging to a reliable person who “offers no surprises”; the right duration (3-5 seconds) tells us the person is interested in us but not overly so; direct eye contact means the person is more likely than not to be honest and sincere; and a sincere smile indicates a friendly person.

In the next post we will describe the eight simple parts of a solid, professional handshake and how to fine-tune yours.  We will also talk about hugging and cheek-kissing in place of handshakes, including when (and how) to do them without embarrassing yourself; the special rules for shaking hands with ladies and much more.  After reading the upcoming second half of this article you will have much greater confidence when meeting people and, with just a little practice, you’ll have a new tool in your social skills toolbox!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
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