Head Nods and “Uh Humms”


Apparent agreement is far more common than genuine agreement, and is usually a big waste of time and credibility.

My wife Doris and I were in a business meeting not long ago. There appeared to be agreement on several important points but a few days later the deal backtracked. It was not dead, but it wasn’t where it appeared to be just after the meeting.

As Doris pointed out, the meeting had lots of “head nods and ‘uh humms'” of token agreement. Now those token agreements were being reconsidered after a few days.

Man smiling in a business meeting

I often contend that most people are more comfortable telling a lie than saying a clear and direct “no.” We are social creatures and, as such, most of us want to avoid not only confrontation but also the risk that saying “no” will evoke a poor reaction.

The often subconscious thought process leads people to believe it is better to save the “no” for later when away from the group or when the “no” can be delivered remotely by email, phone, or text. It is essentially good old-fashioned conflict avoidance. Or the lie we tell ourselves that we are avoiding conflict when we’re really just being emotionally (and physically) remote when responding.

Several years ago, I decided to take some sales training classes recommended by business associates I trusted. Roger Daviston taught these classes and they were unlike any class or book I had read on the subject. In particularly, Roger focused on genuine communication skills and many of those skills were associated with the word “No.” It had a profound effect on me and we use much of these skills in our business to this day, not just for sales but for project management and team communication.

As years have passed, I find I continue to increasingly embrace a healthy, honest “no” and do all I can to help others give me that “no” faster if it is the eventual outcome anyway. None of us, including you, have the time to waste on false head nods and deferred conflict avoidance.

For example, we work to give clear permission and even encouragement for others to turn us down, to disagree, to find another option, or to agree to disagree. Our efforts are not sales tricks; they are driven by sincere desire to move forward in all things. We don’t get to save time or repeat a day, so let’s not waste any of it with false apparent agreements.

Don’t chase false answers that make you feel good only in the short term. Seek out real answers and accept them respectfully, even when you disagree. And perhaps most importantly, lead by example and learn to respectfully be honest and direct with others.


Glenn S. PhillipsGlenn S. Phillips is the author of the book Nerd-to-English: Your Everyday Guide to Translating Your Business, Your Messages, and Yourself.  You can email Glenn directly at glennsphillips@nerdtoenglish.com.

Glenn is also the president of Forte’ Incorporated, a consulting firm that works with business leaders to understand and address the often hidden technology and business risks lurking within their organizations.

© Copyright 2012. Glenn S. Phillips, Forte’ Incorporated. (205) 985-1111


About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.