You’ve been here before. You and your team spend hours coming up with an idea for your digital product. The idea is inspired. Maybe even brilliant. But, when you show it to your stakeholders, their response is…less than enthusiastic. It can be both disheartening and frustrating when you don’t get the buy-in you were hoping for your big ideas.

What to do about it? How do you protect your ideas and get decision makers on your side? We met with three expert stakeholder survivalists to get their advice for handling stakeholders and avoiding an attack on your idea or project.

Our Stakeholder Survivalists

David Anderson, Senior Broadcast Producer at Lexington Medical Center
Leilani Boyce, Senior UX Architect at Cardinal Solutions
Paul Rouillard, Lead Product Designer at Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories

What We Learned (in a nutshell)

  1. Treat stakeholders like users, not clients.
  2. Listen closely and actively to your stakeholders’ feedback and concerns.
  3. Build relationships with your stakeholders.

Treat Stakeholder Like Users

Approaching your stakeholders not as clients, but as users, can help you achieve more effective conversations with them.
– Leilani Boyce

Build stakeholder empathy.

As expert David Anderson points out, stakeholders often have mounting pressures on them that shape their reactions. Work to understand those pressures and try not to make them worse. Remind stakeholders that you’re there to help them, but you need their help too. Treat decision makers as a part of the process, not just a required approval. The more you can empathize with where your stakeholders are coming from, the more willing they will be to work with you.

Stakeholders aren’t the enemy. We need their help to make this work.
– David Anderson

Remember: Stakeholders have feelings too.

As expert Leilani Boyce points out, think of all the time and effort you put into researching your users. Ask yourself why you don’t extend your stakeholders the same courtesy. We often treat stakeholders as emotionless clients that only act on facts and reason, but they’re just people too. Treat them like people, and your next big stakeholder meeting will go much more smoothly.

Understand what stakeholders’ pain points are and dig out all their real concerns.
– Paul Rouillard 

Listen Closely and Actively

Listen to what stakeholders are saying. Really try and understand what they are trying to accomplish.
– Paul Rouillard 

Don’t just write off feedback.

When a stakeholder voices concerns, take the time to really process what they are saying. Even if their concern throws a wrench into what you thought was a perfect idea, consider their feedback as you would any viable question or doubt. Not only will this reassure stakeholders that their opinions are being heard, it will help you address potential problems and just might lead you to create an even better solution.

Regardless of how much or how little you value someone’s input, always take the time to listen to it.
– David Anderson

Make sure you understand stakeholders’ concerns clearly.

Oftentimes, stakeholders have a hard time expressing exactly what they think is wrong with an idea. They don’t know about UX best practices or online design principles or content strategy. They’re not digital experts, so they find it hard to explain why they don’t like they thing they don’t like. This is where you need to take the reins. Ask them to describe the problems they see the best they can. Then, ask detailed follow-up questions until you have a solid understanding of what their issues are. This can often mean reading between the lines and taking what your stakeholders say with a grain of salt.

We need to help them: What is that you like, don’t like? Can you tell me why? I just want to make sure that I’m understanding where you’re coming from.
– Leilani Boyce 

Build Relationships With Stakeholders

If you can portray an understanding of stakeholders, that’s half the battle.
– David Anderson

Research your stakeholders.

Like any good survivalist, you should have a keen understanding of the threat at hand. You need to know what your stakeholders do, what they like, what they don’t like, what their management style is, etc. You need to get to know them. It is far easier to understand how to get someone onboard with your idea if you already have a good idea of what they’ll like and what they’ll take issue with.

Look up your stakeholders on LinkedIn. Their title, how long they’ve been with the company, how they describe what they do.
– Leilani Boyce

Talk with individuals before the big meeting.

A super-pro tip from expert Paul Rouillard: Use your relationships with your stakeholders to get feedback individually before everyone meets in person. Show them a quick run-through or video of your idea or design as soon as it’s ready and ask for their feedback. That way, if you need to have a tough conversation, you can have it one-on-one. And when you get to the official meeting, you already know what every person is going to say, which puts you in control of the conversation. Meanwhile, your stakeholders feel like you really respect what they say because you took the extra time to talk to them individually and to listen to what they had to say.

At the big meeting, also recognize individuals. Point out good ideas and work, and also voice any concerns you heard during your individual meetings. As Paul says, just because it doesn’t get said in the meeting doesn’t mean the concern isn’t out there, and that just causes tension. Having friends in the room and giving everyone’s feedback a voice can defuse even difficult situations.

When I have an idea or design, I start by sharing it individually. I say, hey we’re having a meeting but I want your feedback ahead of time so if you’re not happy, I can change it before we get to the meeting.
– Paul Rouillard

Mention something you didn’t win on.

Another master tip from Paul: It will help your position if you’re not always the winner. When appropriate, subtly mention something that didn’t go your way. It shows that you’re just another person working on the project and not someone demanding that it’s your way or the highway. Even better if the thing you had to give up didn’t really matter that much to you in the first place.

I almost always try to point out something I had to give up. Because when I have to give something up, it doesn’t feel like I’m the winner. I’m just one of the people in the room. There are things that are 10 on my concern list and there are things that are 1. If I can give up a 1 and own it, I’ll give it up all day long.
-Paul Rouillard

Surviving a Stakeholder Attack Without a Scratch

It’s a dangerous stakeholders’ world out there. Going into a meeting with several hungry stakeholders who have their bosses breathing down their necks and just want to go to lunch is enough to terrify the best of us. But, armed with these stakeholder survivalist tactics, you’ll be better prepared to handle your next stakeholder encounter and emerge without a single scratch.


About truematter

Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the earliest days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.

Having survived many a ferocious stakeholder attack, we have to say that decision makers aren’t really that bad. Most of them just want what we all want: to be heard and understood.

Author: Isabelle Carroll
Photography: @djosephmachado
Editors: @baileysendsword and @ExperienceDean