Stakeholder engagement is one of the key aspects of management and inevitably leads to some difficult conversations. The reality of human behaviour means that stakeholders will not always appear to be fully rational and amenable. When this happens it is important to understand why they behave the way they do and, if necessary, persuade them to change their behaviour.
In the first place, is the root cause of their behaviour because you are at bottom of their priority list or is it deeper-rooted? If it’s the former you need to increase their interest in the project, by explaining what’s in it for them. If time is an issue then you need to make it easier for them to participate in the time available? If it’s something more deep rooted, you need to take a closer look at the emotions and the reasons that drive their behaviour. If it’s self-interest, you need to negotiate a win-win; if they don’t understand or have misunderstood you need to inform and educate; and if they have a low tolerance for change you need to provide support and help them discover that it is better than they feared.
Relationships are, of course, a two-way thing and in order to change someone else’s behaviour you may need to consider changing your own. In the first place, think like a salesman. Use positive reviews and feedback from other stakeholders, data and knowledge, listening skills and empathy, to gain stakeholder’s confidence. Boost their ego if necessary; asking for advice is very beguiling since it builds trust and opens up a relationship, because you show that you care and that you are humble enough to ask for their opinion.
Being liked is, perhaps unsurprisingly, key to influence. If someone likes you, you always have that extra edge. So be nice, diplomatic, patient and easy to work with: managing stakeholders effectively is not for those with a short fuse and little patience. Be prepared to listen to their reservations and fix them wherever possible. Always politely acknowledge criticisms and ask for their suggestions for improvement. Leave your negative emotions by the door, put your tongue in neutral and just listen.
Try not to take things personally. People act difficult for different reasons and this is not necessarily a reflection of your shortcomings. One way to detach yourself is through the use of humour. Learn to use humour wisely to defuse tension. However, if you are upset, or feel like you are losing control, reschedule the meeting for another time. This will give you enough time to calm down, reassess the situation and identify the best way forward. This may also be the time to reflect on your feelings toward them. Do you look up to them, down on them, do you fear them or do you think they are laughable? The attitudes you hold about them will affect your interactions with people, even if you would like them not to.
Of course, you should not roll over every time a stakeholder takes exception to what you do or say, but if you decide to confront a difficult stakeholder; separate the person from the issue and choose your battles wisely. In some cases, confrontation with a difficult stakeholder can be beneficial and help to iron out issues. In other cases, it’s just not necessary. Instead, save the debate for someone who can actually make a difference to the situation. On balance, when you deal with a stakeholder softly, he or she will eventually become more willing to listen to you. And if all else fails escalate to a higher authority.
Finally, remain accessible and engage in open and frequent communication with stakeholders. Ensuring ongoing dialogue generates trust and allows for faster identification and resolution of issues as they arise.