It’s something most of us do often. We shake hands. We shake hands with long-time friends, with old acquaintances, and with brand-new people. Shaking hands here and shaking hands there.

I took a class in college where they taught us how to shake hands. I remember thinking at the time — more than 20 years ago – that everyone should know how shakes hands effectively. Then, as I reflected, I realized that I had shaken more than a few hands that needed those lessons. I thought then, and agree now that my Dad taught me the basics and importance of good handshakes.

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.

An American colleague who has now been living and teaching in Japan for some time must agree because she 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 :))

Here are the secrets to great handshakes, assembled to respond to her earnest request.

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 physical greeting and you want to convey your pleasure in greeting the other person. 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 handshake, 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 handshake.

3. Firm, not strong. A good handshake is firm but not overpowering. It isn’t the precursor to a wrestling match, and it doesn’t feel like a dead fish. Do you want to be handed or greeted with a dead fish? I doubt it! 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 warmer and more personal. When I am trying to convey those feelings I include my left hand as well. 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.

After re-reading and thinking about these secrets several times, I realized that the deeper key to handshakes (as with many things in life) is intention. Keep your focus on the other person, and you will naturally do many of the things on the list. You will make the handshake a natural part of your connection process. You will make eye contact. You will smile. You will connect. You naturally adjust your grip, etc. You will focus on the other person.

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 my Dad for teaching me and thanks to Teresa for asking me the question.

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