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The Handshake of Trust

By Judson Vaughn in  

As a client and/or witness in a legal dispute you will naturally be shaking hands with the people you greet during the process. This is often the very first chance you have to establish trust with the person you are greeting (either your own lawyer, or a stranger), as well as establishing instinctual trust with everyone who can see you shaking hands. If you do this right, observers will instinctually think that you are more trustworthy than someone you shakes hands “at arms length.” 

Clearly George W. Bush did not understand this idea.  As President, he apparently thought shaking hands in front of a camera was only a photo-op to show his smile.  This is not a rare occurrence.  There are hundreds of photos of President Bush shaking hands awkwardly on dozens of photo websites.


Shaking hands to gain instinctual trust.

However, Ronald Reagan seems to have completely understood exactly what a public handshake was all about, and its value.  Reagan also understood how to properly shake hands:  Keep your elbow close to your torso and move toward people as they move toward you.  There is great strength in letting your friends and your opponents close to you.


In addition, look at Reagan’s direct eye contact in the photos above. Reagan clearly understood the concept of consumption even if he’d never heard the word used in this context.  There is an absolutely striking contrast between President Reagan and George W. Bush regarding eye contact during a handshake.  Getty Images’ website contains hundreds of photos of both Presidents.  In a viewing of the first 500 photos of each, in those photos where either president is shaking hands, Bush is looking at the person he’s shaking hands with approximately 38% of the time.  Reagan is looking at the person he’s shaking hands with about 93% of the time, which tells you quite a lot about their individual abilities to connect with others.  This statistic alone makes it understandable why Bush was considered such a poor communicator, and Reagan’s moniker was “The Great Communicator.”  Obviously Reagan made a concerted effort to make an emotional connection with those he came in contact with, and that effort translated to a desire to connect with individual audience members when he was giving a speech.

Seeing images of Reagan shaking hands shows that he was a master of persuasive communication.  The difference between these two President’s abilities to connect with others was striking, and the poll numbers following their public addresses provide corroborating evidence that their ability (or lack thereof) to connect to an individual one-on-one, also translated to an ability to connect with an entire audience.  Over the course of his Presidency, Bush rarely got a positive boost in the polls following a major speech, and Reagan almost always did.  Reagan left office as a hero; Bush stumbled out as a failure.

All clients and witnesses should take note that it’s not the number of hands you touch that will garner the trust of the panel, jury or judge; it’s the quality of each touch.  The person who takes a moment to truly connect with one person during a handshake and is consumed during that handshake, will simultaneously affect the emotions of the other people surrounding him or her.

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