Whenever you start a negotiation, you're trying to decide whether to be cooperative or antagonistic with the person on the other side of the table.
A lot of it comes through nonverbal cues — like handshakes.
Take it from Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino.
"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," Gino writes on the Harvard Business Review. "By paying attention to this behavior, negotiators can communicate their motives and intentions, and better understand how the other side is approaching discussions."
Gino and her colleagues showed as much in a series of clever experiments.
One study concerned a fictional real estate negotiation, with participants playing the role of buyer and seller of a piece of land. The twist was that the buyer knew about a forthcoming change in zoning law — a shift from residential to the more lucrative commercial property.
"Clearly, the buyer had little interest in sharing this information with the seller," Gino says. "In fact, when asked by sellers whether they intended to use the land for commercial development, many buyers lied or dodged the question altogether."
But things went differently if people shook hands before negotiating. The handshakers ended up with a more equitable deal than those who went straight to business. Plus, they were less likely to deceive one another in regards to the zone changes.
Follow-up studies corroborated the "win-win" finding.
In one experiment, undergrads taking the role of "hiring boss" or "job candidate" each got more of what they wanted after shaking hands — the hirers landed an earlier start date, the hirees a better salary.
Taken together, the studies show that something that seems like empty custom has big effects on business.
A handshake — and the warmth it communicates — shapes the other person's perception of the negotiation. Opponents will be less antagonistic and more cooperative, with better outcomes for all as a result.
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