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Secrets of a Great Handshake

Posted at 7:24 AM on Sunday, April 09, 2006

Yesterday my family and I attended Spring Fest at Purdue University, my alma mater. One of the activities took place in a classroom where I had several classes, including Dr. Dave Downey's Principles of Agri-Selling. One of the many things we learned in that class was about the importance of, and how to give a good handshake.

I didn't think about the handshake part until I was reading my email last evening. An American colleague who has now been living and teaching in Japan for some time emailed me and part of the email reads:

Next week is the beginning of the school year - and I really want to get my new students off to the best possible start. Would you be willing to share your thoughts on how to give a really great handshake? I have been away from the U.S. for so long, and have few opportunities to practice (though my bowing has gotten really good :))

I thought about it last night - the synchronicity of thinking about that class and then receiving this email, and the importance of the question.

I remember thinking at the time of the class over 20 years ago that everyone should know how to do a good handshake, but I quickly remembered from experience that clearly wasn't the case. Add good handshakes to the very long list of things I learned from my Dad.

In much of the world, the handshake is a part of the first impression that we make. People think about first impressions from a grooming and dress standpoint, in business situations they practice what they might say, and they often read books to learn what kinds of questions to ask to remain authentic and create a positive first impression.

And while all of that is important, it is the handshake, often overlooked and forgotten, that is the first physical information others receive about us at the early part of a relationship.

In other words, handshakes matter.

And a strong one can make a big difference.

With that preamble, let me share with you my secrets for a great handshake.

1. Start with eye contact and a smile. A great handshake isn't just about a physical gesture, it is about connecting with the other person. It is a greeting and you want the other person to feel that you are pleased to be greeting them. The best way to do that is with your face and your eyes.

2. Go for the thumb. Keep your hand open and make sure your handshake will be a hand shake not a finger or palm shake. This means getting the joint of your thumb (the lower joint - the tissue between your thumb to your forefinger) nestled into the joint of their thumb. This allows you to truly have a full hand shake.

3. Firm, not strong. A good handshake is firm but not overpowering. It isn't the precursor to a wrestling match. Always make your grip firm, but make adjustments based on the firmness of the other person's grip.

4. Up and down, not back and forth. A good handshake has a nice up and down motion, not a back and forth one, as if you were jointly trying to saw some wood. Again, adjust the motion to what seems natural and comfortable to the other person.

5. Adjust duration. Some people prefer a long handshake, others prefer them much shorter. Observe the other person and adjust the duration to the situation, how well you know the person, and what seems comfortable to them.

6. Consider your left hand. While it may not be appropriate in some cultures, I often use my other hand to grasp the other side of the person's hand or to touch their arm. This gesture makes the handshake seem warmer and more personal. When I am trying to convey that, I include my left hand. You might consider doing that too.

7. Close with eye contact and a smile. If the smile and eye contact hasn't continued throughout the handshake, finish it out that way.

As a leader or a person responsible for interacting with Customers in any way, the value of this skill is obvious. The fact is though that having a great handshake is a life skill we should all cultivate. It matters to us in creating first impressions and in building relationships.

Thanks to Teresa for asking me the question.
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