Here’s the takeaway: If you think that you can hide something that you feel, you’re wrong. We can’t always hide what we think we can. You have to be genuine with your thinking and intentions. If not, people can figure it out.

 Last week, a man named Dr. Bill Acheson spoke to a group that I belong to with other business leaders and executives. He specializes in nonverbal communication: How we sit, how we talk, and how we greet people can really say a lot.

It’s not necessarily fair, but he believes that you can identify somebody’s motivation, personal power, and personal net worth in the first fifteen seconds of conversation, just from their greeting. He’s probably right, which is why he’s been doing this for forty years.

One of the most important gestures that can indicate power and motivation is the handshake. Now, we know that nobody likes a weak handshake (see: The Dead Fish Handshake). However, Dr. Acheson says that there are several components to a good handshake which reveal these key factors:

  • Whether or not you’re sincere
  • Who is the more powerful person
  • If you’re hiding something
  • If they just don’t care
  1. Height of hand: If you come into the handshake with your hand facing palm down, and this makes the person turn their hand palm up to shake yours, that gesture says: “I’m above you, I’m dominant, and you need to be subservient to me.” If a person automatically spins their hand so that their palm is facing up, it may be a gesture of lesser status. If you go in with your palm held vertically, you are saying this is a mutually respected status.
  2. Firmness: A straight-on handshakes says, “I’m meeting you and we’re equals.” If the other person grabs your hand and pulls it, it may mean that they’re trying to establish power. Overly firm handshakes are signals to men saying, “I’m a dominant guy.” But often suggest insecurity.  For women, it’s a signal that they’re trying to establish their own power in a physical way. However, and I found this a bit odd, the most secure and dominant handshake is a the “dead-fish,” which issoft and inconsequential.  Studies have shown that this type of handshake is common among the super successful and powerful. It has been suggested that it says, I am so successful and dominate over you, I don’t have to prove anything to you.  If this limp handshake is met with dismissive or wandering interest in the room. You may be meeting an oil sheik or billionaire.
  3. The person’s other arm: If you watch the person’s other arm (the hand they aren’t shaking with), that’s some of the most telling information you can find. If you go up to someone and they shake your hand, but put their other hand behind them or in their pocket, those are deception “tells.” They may be hiding something. If the other arm just hangs down, that’s pretty neutral. If the other hand makes a fist or tenses up a little bit, they probably need something from you and this can be a good tell if you are salesman.  Finally, Bonus points: If they really like you, they may pull their other hand forward as if to touch your hand but don’t.  This is an indicator that they are excited to see you. It has been suggested to avoid  the “politician” and touch your hand with both of your hands. Even though politicians do this, it’s generally considered unacceptable for a first meeting, because there’s a little bit too much touch. It is a breach of our social norms.

Now, body language is amazingly complex, but it comes down to having good intentions and being able to interpret someone else’s motivation. You might not even realize that you’re doing any of these things. They are worth paying attention to. You have to be genuine with your thinking and intentions. If not, people will figure it out.  Warning: after that learning session, I have become overly aware of how I shake hands and of what I am saying. I do believe you have to start with good intentions.

 If you’d like to learn a little bit more about handshakes and what happens when you meet someone right off the bat, this TedTalk with Allan Pease is very helpful. Dr. Bill Acheson’s website is also a fantastic place to find more information about nonverbal communication and power dynamics in business. Questions? Comments? Leave them in the section below, anytime! Here to help, first.

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