To Negotiate Effectively, First Shake Hands

Negotiations − especially when they involve high stakes, complex issues, and multiple parties — require much thinking and preparation on each side of the bargaining table. Consider the recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Even before the contentious talks actually started, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani scheduled a meeting that took months to arrange. There was only one item on the agenda for the meeting: a handshake. At the last moment, however, Rouhani decided not to meet Obama, leading American pundits to call the incident the “historic non-handshake” that risked compromising the quality of the ensuing negotiations.

People make inferences about one another’s motives based on first impressions, which occur extremely quickly. We only need 100 milliseconds to form judgments of others on all sorts of dimensions, including likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness. Even more interesting, our first impressions of others are generally accurate and reliable. For instance, first impressions about a person’s competence have been shown to be good predictors of important outcomes such as who will win a political election.

Handshakes can create a positive first impression by conveying a sociable personality. In one study, a firm handshake was positively related to extraversion and emotional expressiveness and negatively related to shyness and neuroticism. Another study found that people who follow common prescriptions for shaking hands, such as using a firm grip and looking the other person in the eye, also receive higher ratings of employment suitability in job interviews. Witnessing people shaking hands in a business setting not only leads third-party observers to more positively evaluate the relationship, but it even increases activation in the nucleus accumbens in the observers’ brains — the area associated with reward sensitivity. That is, we feel rewarded simply by watching others shake hands!

In the context of a negotiation, a handshake’s message can go even further, my research finds. Consider that we all rely on subtle sources of information to determine whether to behave in cooperative or antagonistic ways during our negotiations. One such source of information is nonverbal behavior, including handshakes. Across many cultures, shaking hands at the beginning and end of a negotiating session conveys a willingness to cooperate and reach a deal that considers the interests of the parties at the table. By paying attention to this behavior, negotiators can communicate their motives and intentions, and better understand how the other side is approaching discussions.

In one study, colleagues at Harvard’s and the University of Chicago’s business schools and I asked pairs of executives to negotiate as the buyer and seller in a hypothetical real estate deal. The executives had to negotiate over one issue only: the price of the land. In the simulation, the seller believed that the property under consideration was zoned for residential use only, but the buyer knew that the zoning laws would change soon, allowing the buyer to develop the land for commercial use and thereby making it much more valuable. Clearly, the buyer had little interest in sharing this information with the seller. In fact, when asked by sellers whether they intended to use the land for commercial development, many buyers lied or dodged the question altogether.

We instructed half of the pairs to shake hands before negotiating. We did not give specific instructions to the other half about handshaking, our control condition. Most of them just jumped into the negotiation without shaking hands first, presumably because they were under time pressure. Pairs who had been asked to shake hands divided up the pie more evenly than did those in the control condition. In addition, buyers in the pairs who had been asked to shake hands were less misleading about the zoning change than were buyers in the control condition.

In follow-up studies, we tested whether these results held for integrative negotiations — those where parties could discuss multiple issues and potentially create value. In one experiment, for instance, we randomly assigned undergraduate students to the role of “hiring boss” or “job candidate” and gave them time to prepare individually for the negotiation to determine the latter’s salary, start date, and office location. The students in the role of job candidates knew they had the job if they wanted it, but they needed to negotiate the details with the hiring boss. Both parties were instructed to prefer the same location and have opposing starting positions on salary and start date. Because the candidate cared more about salary and the boss cared more about start date, the solution that maximized the joint outcomes was to allow the candidate the highest salary and the boss the earliest start date. We told the pairs that the participant who received the better score in the negotiation would earn a financial bonus (for real!).

Half of the pairs were accompanied to the table where they would negotiate and told, “It is customary for people to shake hands prior to starting a negotiation.” The other half of the pairs was seated immediately and thus had no opportunity to shake hands. Pairs then negotiated for no more than 10 minutes. Two research assistants who were blind to the hypotheses of the study coded videotapes of the negotiations on a variety of criteria, including our main measure of interest: the parties’ openness in discussing their individual priorities throughout the negotiation. The result: Shaking hands induced greater openness about negotiators’ preferences on contentious issues and improved joint outcomes.

When I was little, I often got into conflicts with my brother and sister over toys or books. As in many other families across the globe, my parents used to tell us to “shake hands and make up.” Their words conveyed the belief that the simple gesture would induce cooperation and goodwill. As my research and others’ shows, the simple act of shaking hands is indeed a powerful gesture in negotiation.

Focus On: Negotiating
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