Most conversations that matter -- with the father of the girl you're dating or the guy who signs your paycheck -- begin the same way: A handshake. And now there's proof that the simple gesture really is the best way to win someone over.

A new study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that a handshake leads to a more positive interaction with someone. Researchers at the University of Illinois analyzed the behavior and brain activity of 18 people who rated videos of interactions -- starting with or without a handshake -- on competence, trustworthiness, and an interest in working together.

The results? Ninety-four percent of people rated handshake interactions positively. That's because when a handshake precedes an interaction, two parts of your brain -- the reward center and the social cognition network -- collaborate and produce a positive thought, says study author Florin Dolcos, Ph.D., an assistant psychology professor at Illinois.

So how do you perfect the firm, yet friendly handshake? We asked body language expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language & Charisma. And it turns out, it's just three quick steps.

1. Start Early
Offering your hand early makes it clear you're prepared and confident. When you're 5 to 6 feet from the person, strike out your hand, Wood says. But instead of putting out your hand so your fingers are pointed at the person, tilt them downward so you can scoop up into the other person's hand for full palm-to-palm contact, she advises. You'll appear open and honest and avoid the awkward fingers-only grab. (Get more cool tips like these delivered to your inbox every day when you sign up for our free Daily Dose newsletter!)

2. Apply Pressure
Every handshake has a leader and a follower -- so your role each time is situation-specific. Wood says you typically follow the host (he extends his hand and you reciprocate), but if you're at a sales pitch and want to make a soft yet authoritative gesture, take the lead. Then, gauge how much pressure your partner puts on your hand and do the same: "You want to be in sync with the person that's shaking your hand," says Wood. Stuck shaking hands with someone who's crushing your bones? Don't pull away. Instead, use Wood's trick: "Shift your weight on to your right foot. Your hand goes a little bit forward, and they'll loosen the grip." It's an attack move that's so subtle, your partner won't even notice.

3. Lock Eyes (Briefly)
Eye contact during a handshake should last 3 seconds, Wood says. That's the typical marker when people will either blink or turn away. "Men really play 'scare-out' -- who's going to be the first to blink or look away," she says. Don't be that guy who gives a quick glance (weak) or stares for 5 seconds (creep). Need more ice-breaking advice? Learn How to Talk to Strangers.

Bonus: Don't Forget the Goodbye Handshake
It's just as important as the first one. Think back to high school sports: You begin with a handshake, tough it out, then finish the same way. Wood says this one signals, "We're buddies again. Fight's over. Game's over. Fresh start next time." Plus, if you gave a wimpy attempt the first time, consider the closing shake a way to redeem yourself.

More From Men's Health:
-- 6 Habits of Great Bosses
-- 5 Ways To Ruin A First Impression
-- How To Negotiate Your Starting Salary

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