This is a guest post by Ben Brearley. He gives some great tips on communication techniques which improve stakeholder engagement based on his practical experience. We previously discussed this subject in this post.

As a consultant I am often put to work in projects with challenging constraints and difficult stakeholders. During my career I’ve found that the way that you engage with stakeholders is a critical skill in being able to perform under these conditions. It seems that just being technically skilled is not good enough, and if you’re a Business Analyst or Project Manager, you simply can’t afford to have stakeholders strongly dislike you. In this article I’d like to share a few points that have helped me to build strong relationships in challenging circumstances.

These techniques consist of some particular ways of speaking, including what words to use and when, and also some ideas on how to build rapport and trust with your stakeholders. I have found these techniques to be very useful when dealing with prickly stakeholders that are looking for an excuse to be offended.

Try not to say “but”

How many times have you been in a conversation where somebody says to you “I know what you’re saying, but….” The brain seems to react to that word quite strongly on instinct. It is easy to find yourself losing focus or interest after someone uses that sentence structure, so I like to try to avoid it wherever possible. In this context, the use of “but” can make the other person think that you are wiping their opinion out and replacing it with yours.

A good alternative is to use “and” where you can. Here’s an example. Instead of saying “I see what you’re saying, but I actually see it this way…” you can try “I see what you’re saying, and I also understand that…” Doing this helps to build on the other person’s ideas and removes the verbal blockade that makes them feel undervalued. 

It can be tough adapting to this sort of sentence structure and it may even feel forced at first. Once you master it though it can make a real difference to how people respond to you. 

Try to avoid saying “I think”

When in a conversation, unless specifically prompted about my opinion, instead of saying something like “I thought that you weren’t involved in the steering committee” I try to say “My understanding was that you weren’t involved in the steering committee”. This change of sentence adds distance between me and the other person - I am saying that an understanding was formed through a variety of factors. If the other person takes offence, they tend to attack my (perhaps false) understanding rather than attacking me directly. This also makes it very easy for me to say that I had the wrong understanding – which tends to defuse any attack.

Try not to tell the other person what they think

Nobody likes it when you presume to understand what they want or think. For example, saying “So you want to do X” can be easily replaced with “My understanding is that you want to do X, is this correct?” It’s softer and assumes less knowledge of the other person - failing to do this may invite the other party to surmise “this person thinks they understand what I want without asking”, leading to a potentially irritable attitude.

Explain the reasons behind decisions

It seems quite obvious, but explaining the reasons behind difficult choices or decisions improves the chances of having a good stakeholder experience. People react more favourably when they have a chance to understand on what grounds a decision was made - since hopefully there would be a sound rationale behind it.

I’ve worked with a few senior people who tend to operate on a “need to know” basis - often presuming that some stakeholders don’t need to be told the rationale, they just need to “deal with it”. I believe this to be a dangerous approach as shutting out stakeholders in this manner can lead to a nasty surprise if they choose to escalate their concerns.

Be reliable

If there is only one improvement you can make to your stakeholder engagement, make it this one. Be consistent and reliable, so that people know what they can expect from you. If you said you’d set up a meeting for next week, DO IT. If you said you would drop them an email tomorrow when you’ve found out more information, DO IT. If something stops you from setting up that meeting, let the stakeholders know why.

Small, consistent actions performed over time builds trust - and stakeholders will tend not to attack you if they trust you and know what to expect. Recently a comment filtered back to me from a very influential stakeholder that “they were very happy that our project was listening to them”. The action I had taken to produce this comment was to set up a meeting to discuss one of their issues, after saying that I would. People want to be heard, and it often doesn’t take much effort to listen.

Communicate often (no surprises!)

A friend and Program Manager I worked with recently has a “#1 Rule” which is “no surprises!” This means if something goes wrong, you let the appropriate people know early - you don’t wait and try to cover it up. There is nothing worse than when an issue bubbles to the surface when you could have warned people about it earlier. 

If you have a task that’s going to take a few weeks, let them know your progress as you go. When stakeholders are already cynical (as they are in some environments!), if you don’t communicate progress you can bet that some of them are thinking “he/she isn’t doing anything”. Maintaining “radio silence” is a good way to make stakeholders uncomfortable and start telling others that you’re no good.

Try to help people where possible, asking for nothing in return

Helping people makes you feel good right? Well, yes. But it also makes your job easier in the long run. If someone needs something done that you know would only take you an hour, why not jump in and help. You needn’t try to shoulder everyone’s workload, but if you help people strategically it can be beneficial.

Recently I was working with project teams who were designing their “future state” for departments in their new facility. This was going to be done using a series of workshops with their business stakeholders. Since some of these project teams weren’t experienced in facilitation, I offered to help them run some sessions on facilitation tips and techniques so they could be better prepared.

Why did I do this? Firstly, because I thought it was important for their projects to have a better chance of success. Secondly, because I work with these project teams closely, I will need to interact with them in some capacity through the duration of the program - it’s much easier to do so if you have already banked a small favour along the way - and one day they might just help me too.

So it’s easy to say “it’s not my job”, but sometimes it’s better to make it your job for a minute and help others out for no immediate benefit to yourself.

Be as genuine as possible and avoid exaggerated flattery

A few of the sentence structure and word usage tips I gave above are really dependent on being able to be genuine. For me, it works by empathising with them - I think of the things their dealing with and try to understand their point of view. Usually it’s not that hard to see why someone is annoyed at a given situation, even though you might not be personally. 

I try to avoid saying “I know how you feel”, because this implies that you have been through the same thing at one time or another and I find people can get annoyed at this comment. I’ll say “I know what you mean” or “I can see how it would be frustrating…” instead. Remember also that your actions speak loudly - if you are reliable and communicate often, stakeholders get the sense that you’re interested in them.

And lastly, please don’t try to “butter up” your stakeholders with exaggerated flattery. Recently I was told “this is why we need to work with great people like yourself…” from somebody who hadn’t worked with me before. Immediately I thought “what does this person want from me?” People with a sense of awareness will see through this.

I hope these tips have been useful for you - I have used all of the above points in one way or another over my career and believe they have made a positive difference and drawn out favourable comments from my stakeholders. They aren’t rocket science, but simple tips that have helped me to overcome some of the issues that you can experience working in large programs or difficult workplaces. Some of these tips take time to implement - you can’t be trusted immediately, but you can definitely build it over time.

About the author

Ben Brearley has worked as a BA, PM and Consultant over the past 12 years in the Health, Utilities and Resources industries and is currently a Senior Consultant at Ernst & Young in Perth, Western Australia. He has presented as a guest speaker on Project Governance and Networking skills at various institutions and recently completed his Masters in Business at the University of Western Australia. LinkedIn profile