What Handshakes Can Teach Us About Communication

When I ask my organizational clients what their greatest challenges are, one of the most common answers is communication — but that’s a 10,000 foot answer. What is the specific problem? Is communication poor, non-existent, incomplete, sometimes aggressive, wishy-washy…? What’s the problem? While there’s a hundred different ways in which communication can be a problem, one thing is consistent: bad communication destroys trust and causes people to pull back rather than reach out. How do you get that trust back?

Think of a handshake. Symbolically, it’s a physical manifestation of connection, spoken in the form of body language and representative of trust and vulnerability. After all, it locks you together; the other person could squeeze too hard, or you may want to let go long before they do. It’s vulnerable. That’s what makes its mechanics so powerful. 

A handshake is a synecdoche (a part representing the whole) for our greater relationship, and what is communication if not an agent to build relationship? If we look at it this way, our arm is our leadership — that which we bring to the relationship. Our fellowship, if you will. We use that fellowship to reach out, to indicate the desire to communicate, to bring our hands together to make a connection. The connection comes at the point of contact between the palms of the hand.  That’s where contact is made and communication begins. Ever touched a sweaty palm and pulled back — or wanted to? How we experience that contact matters. But contact is not the same as connection. We come in contact all the time with people with whom we don’t connect; why is that? Likely for reasons of trust, the fear of conflict, or their unwillingness to commit to the relationship. To make a handshake work, we must commit. Unless we are willing to wrap our fingers around each other’s hand, it’s not a handshake — and we’re not really connecting. 

Think about handshakes that are dead-fish-ish, weak or lacking. We instantly form judgements. If that were communication within a team, we would likely describe that team as dysfunctional, non-committal, with poor results. Now think about a strong, positive handshake.  The participants are engaged, connected, committed, and form a genuine bond. Through their hands they are communicating confidence and the desire to connect. If that were a team, it would be highly functional. Communication builds that desire to connect.

If the arm is the leadership/fellowship we bring to the handshake and relationship, the palms that come together represent our point of contact. But the fingers, they’re the communication. Are they communicating trust, vulnerability, equality, compassion…?  Notice how another person’s fingers feel wrapped around your hand; does it feel mutual, or is one person showing dominance through squeezing too hard? Do you have a nice back and forth shake of respect, or is one of you pulling the other in towards them, throwing the other off balance? A handshake can build trust or undermine it; create conflict or dissipate it; foster a partnership or turn a person off. And all of that is achieved through the fingers. The palm and the arm can’t grip.

What does your leadership stretch outward to others? Is your connection an invitation to join in communication or an act that causes others to pull away?  Does the other person feel safe and trust your intentions? 

With good communication leadership (the arm) is reaching out to connect (the palm), fostering trust, positive conflict, genuine commitment, supportive accountability and desirable results. That’s what the fingers represent, and they wrap around the hand to close the deal. In a good handshake, you don’t lose individuality, as both hands are embracing equally. Rather, you gain connection. 

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash