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What’s going on with Trump’s handshake?

Posted on Mar 1, 2017

My main concern with Trump’s handshake is not the technique, but the fact that it breaks the rule of ‘mutual exchange’. Trump takes total control. His intention may be one of acceptance, but that is not the outcome.

His widely spread fingers before slapping into a grip are intimidating. His pulling of people into his space and not keeping an equidistant stance, is again, perhaps, an action of warmth. However, judging by the responses of his ‘shake-partners’, the handshake is overbearing.

Mr Trudeau’s handling of the handshake was superb. Notice how he moves close to Mr Trump to alleviate the distance inequality and then grabs Mr Trumps bicep to stop it dragging him in. Very clever indeed.

Researchers Mehrabian, Birdwhistle and Philpott reinforce the importance of non-verbal skills as critical in communication – never more so than in leadership.

The handshake is vital as it sends non-verbal messages and also occurs at the beginning of interactions, making it important for ‘first impressions’.

We make unswerving judgements on others’ wealth and status in the first four seconds, according to researcher Vanderbilt who says “a handshake is as much a part of personality as the way we walk, and although we may modify and improve a poor handshake if someone calls our attention to it, it will still usually be just like us, assured or timid, warm or cool”.

The handshake was a regular feature of the reliefs of ancient Greece and Rome and its origin is thought to be as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hands hold no weapon.

Recently, through a series of tests, researchers at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales threatened to bring the handshake undone.

They documented that fist bumps are 20 times more hygienic than handshakes. They are also 10 times cleaner than high-fives, according to results published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

This information, however, has done nothing to eradicate the handshake in modern society.

So how do we approach our own patterns of handshake?

Judges trained and practiced for a month until they could reliably distinguish eight different handshake characteristics as part of research by Professor William F Chaplin at the University of Alabama. These characteristics included:

  • Completeness of grip
  • Temperature
  • Dryness
  • Strength
  • Duration
  • Vigor
  • Texture
  • Eye contact

In was noted that in normal situations, it may not be the case that anyone actually judges you on all of these factors. Overall, these characteristics were summarized as being either ‘firm’ or ‘not firm’. In addition to evaluating the characteristics of each handshake, the judges were asked their impressions about the personality characteristics displayed by each participant.

The findings concluded those with a firm handshake were viewed as more “open,” and made a more favourable impression.

Women on the handshake

Although it is sometimes thought that when women present themselves as outgoing and confident, others will judge them negatively, believing that they are “pushy” or aggressive, on the contrary. The University of Alabama research shows when it comes to the handshake, women benefit from appearing strong and are not penalized for appearing confident.

For men, the effect was not as strong.

A woman benefits more from having a firm handshake than does a man. For both genders, a weak handshake tends to generate less favourable impressions.

From my own research working with leaders, I find understanding body language is not a new art, but a lost art removed from a deep psychological connection and focusing on the peripheral perceptions of others.

I have a passion for the effective handshake, and to that end I add to Professor Chapman’s list of characteristics not necessarily specific to the hand. These characteristics include:

  • Body balance (right hand with right foot)
  • Breath flow (from low in the body and unblocked in Production)
  • Position of the arm (away from the body and not withdrawing back again)
  • Placing the strength in the ‘slot’, not the grip

I see the handshake as a mutual improvisatory interplay between two people which allows them to connect and have impressions of each other. Women, in general, seem far less practiced and less aware. They lose balance, have body positions that are weak and fail the Chapman rule of ‘firmness’.

So, if you are in a position of leadership, this kind of non-verbal skill is so important to get right.

Here are some tips to practise:

  • Have a dry hand
  • Complete the grip
  • Feel the other person’s need to hold or release
  • Maintain eye contact pre and during the handshake and momentarily afterwards
  • Right foot, right hand (note: this requires a skip in the step after walking with the opposite hand swinging with opposite leg)
  • Have a firm balance on the ground
  • The arm swings through directly from the body, not an outwards swing
  • Keep the elbow away from the body. Do not draw it bac. (There is no need for the bicep muscle to be involved)
  • Greet with air flowing in an uninterrupted way in the speech
  • Keep the mouth released

Dr Louise Mahler is the body language and vocal expert for leaders of influence. This is an edited version of her article.