By Mediator Lee Wallace
Such a small thing! Could a handshake really make a difference in the result at your next negotiation? According to a brand-new study by a team of professors from the business schools at Harvard, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago — yes, a handshake really is THAT important.
At the opening conference at mediation, the parties are seated across big tables. In my experience, usually people speak to one another, but often they do not shake hands. This new study suggests we need to change that. But there is one exception …
The researchers put the traditional handshake to the test in a series of two studies and five experiments. For example, they asked participants to conduct a mock negotiation for a car purchase. Using a scoring system, the professors measured how successful the outcomes were, looking at price, car color, and other factors. They found that when the parties shook hands beforehand, they scored higher, meaning that they reached a more cooperative agreement and both sides got more of what they wanted. Fascinatingly, even when the participants already knew each other, they scored higher if they shook hands before the start of the negotiation.
In another study, the professors encouraged some participants to shake hands before a negotiation, and prevented others from doing so by ushering them to their seats immediately. When the parties shook hands in advance, they reached a mutually better outcome, and were more likely to say they had a positive impression of their opponent.
The professors concluded that the handshake had two effects: it changed the way a negotiator perceived the other side, and it also increased his own level of cooperation. “[N]egotiators expected partners who shook hands to behave more cooperatively than partners who avoided shaking hands or partners whose nonverbal behavior was unknown; these expectations of cooperative intent increased negotiators’ own cooperation.”
Refusing to Shake Hands is a Mistake
In bitter litigation, occasionally one of the parties or the lawyers will make a show of refusing to shake hands with the other side. That strategy may backfire when it comes to getting what you want at mediation, however: “observing a partner’s decision not to shake hands seems to convey the opposite psychological meaning as observing a decision to shake hands: it makes people infer that their partner will be less cooperative and therefore seem less warm.”
Unless… There is One Exception
The one exception to the rule? The study suggested that if you are sick, everyone will be happy if you decide to keep your germs to yourself.
When a sick participant shook hands knowing he could be contagious, suddenly the handshake became a negative signal; the opponent was less likely to see the handshaker as a cooperative person. On the other hand, if the sick person refused to shake hands but explained why, the other side credited them with being cooperative.
The takeaway? The best thing to do when you are sick is to tell the person that you would like to shake hands, but that it would be better for everyone if you did not do that today. Needless to say, people are no more excited about being handed your germs than you are about having them in the first place.
So Shake It Up
The professors concluded: “[T]wo correlational studies and five experiments demonstrate that handshakes can affect real cooperation in negotiations and economic games.” Their paper has been conditionally accepted for publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The article is presently entitled, “Handshaking Promotes Deal-Making by Signaling Cooperative Intent.”