Nine Tips for Building Stakeholder Relationships

Using the right communication techniques with your stakeholders is paramount for building effective stakeholder partnerships.

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Communication Is the Key

One crucial factor behind any successful training project is getting program stakeholders on board. Effective project managers work hard to form a training partnership between the three key players; the trainer, training program participants and the participants' managers. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, various other stakeholders will also hold an interest in the project.

Some stakeholders will align with the training project with little or no encouragement. Others will resist and do their best to jettison the project. The degree of stakeholder alignment you experience is in many cases down to the way you communicate. This Expert View discusses nine practical techniques that you can use to influence your key stakeholders in a positive way. By using these communication techniques, you will increase the chances of success for your training program.

  1. Avoid Preconceptions

    As you are introduced to people who can impact your program, take them at face value. Try not to be influenced by what others say. For example, you are about to meet the Technology Manager and ask Mary about his background. Her remark, "Oh, John. Yeah. He's a worm that tries to squeeze out of everything", is not likely to put you in a positive frame of mind. If you go into the meeting with this mindset, John will probably pick up on your uneasiness through your body language.

    If you do hear such remarks, search out some positive perceptions of John before your meeting. Where appropriate, recount these positive impressions when you meet John. You can say, for example, "Hello John. It looks as if you have a name around here as being the expert on web conferencing systems."

  2. Do Not Play Psychologist

    When you or your ideas do meet with resistance, do not "psychologize". What this means is: do not pretend to know why the person is acting the way they do. For example, do not say, "You're only rejecting my proposal because you didn't think of it first." This kind of response typically invites a rejoinder along the lines of, "How would you know what I'm thinking?" Even if it is not said, most likely the objector will be thinking it.

    Interpreting people's inner motivations is an essential skill for anyone interacting in a social group. However, the other person is likely to see your stated interpretation as an attempt to gain an upper hand in the conversation by taking up a position of superiority. As the person tries to reassert their status, you will likely be met with either an aggressive or defensive response.

    Attacking a person's motives or character is a sure-fire way of breaking a relationship. If the situation is emotionally charged, speak calmly and concentrate on process issues, staying away from discussions about personalities. Keep the meeting focused on outcomes and on how the parties involved can progress toward a mutually agreeable solution.

  3. Build Trust

    Breaching trust is another big relationship killer. Partnerships are built on trust. Give people a reason to trust you by always doing what you say you are going to do, speaking openly and honestly and avoiding speaking ill of people behind their backs. Trust works both ways. If you do not show trust in a person, they are less likely to trust you. You must put some money in the trust bank account before you can draw upon it. Trust also has a significant time-lag effect. It takes a while to earn trust from another person, but can be lost in an instant with one lie, one broken commitment or one misplaced rumor. Once someone has lost trust in you, it can take months, or even years, to reclaim it. For serious breaches, trust may never be regained.

  4. Listen Empathetically

    If there are roadblocks to a solution, and the support of a particular stakeholder is critical, the best start that you can make is to listen. Listen empathetically, without interruption. Listen for the feelings behind what is being said and feed back your understanding to show that you have got the message; both the literal and underlying meanings. Empathetic listening is not only a critical skill for resolving conflict effectively. On the positive side, it is also an important ingredient in developing new and strong relationships.

  5. Reveal Yourself

    Show yourself to be human, with a history, personal characteristics and preferences. We call this revealing the real you to others "self-disclosure". Self-disclosure is about showing the inner you to the people with whom you interact. In practice, it entails saying something about yourself, your interests, your likes and dislikes, your personal stories, and so on. These statements typically begin with the word "I". For example, you could say, "I particularly like Indian food." or "I listen to country music most of the time." When you disclose something about yourself at appropriate times, you send out hooks that others can latch onto. It makes you more interesting and likeable.

  6. Mirror Other People's Behaviors

    Mirroring is the art of adapting your own behavior to that of the person with whom you are communicating. This includes matching the loudness and tempo of the other person's speech, for example. If the person speaks in soft tones, then speak softly also. Mirroring also includes matching some body postures. If the other person is leaning forward, then lean forward also. Researchers have found that a person's likeability increases the more the other person perceives them to be alike.

  7. Ask Questions

    Asking the right questions at the right time and in the right way helps to build bridges. Effective communicators use questions for a variety of purposes, including eliciting information, checking understanding, gaining attention and prompting discussion. Asking questions develops rapport and encourages others to open up.

    You can also use questions to give stakeholders more of a sense of ownership in the program. For example, you could ask the training participants' managers whether they prefer the training course to run on Mondays or Wednesdays.

    To build relationships, ask open questions that require more than a short answer. For example, ask "What do you like most and least about this program design prototype?" instead of "Is this program design prototype adequate?" The former allows for a genuine exploratory dialogue, whereas the latter requires just a "Yes" or "No" answer. Used skillfully, questions can be used to develop an affinity with each stakeholder as well as to promote relationship building between stakeholders.

  8. Watch Your Body Language and Voice

    Pay attention to the way you communicate with your body and your vocal nuances. Be aware of your body postures and gestures. Folded arms, for example, may signal that you are feeling defensive. Avoid sharp and jerky movements that can convey anxiety or unpredictability.

    Similarly, watch carefully how you say things. Language experts call this aspect of communication "paralanguage". How you say something can indicate boredom, sarcasm, contempt, and so on. On the other hand, your voice can convey excitement, interest and respect. Express warmth in your voice, avoiding shrill tones, and speak at a moderate pace.

  9. Deal with Issues Promptly

    Another thing to consider in maintaining healthy partnerships is timing. As soon as an issue develops, tend to it as soon as possible. Some people choose not to deal with the problem, hoping that it will go away. In most cases, it does not. Ignoring the issue will most likely transform it, with the passage of time, from a minor irritation into a major disaster.

    In one company, a front-line supervisor was badmouthing a quality training program attended by his direct reports. The direct reports complained to the supervisor's manager about the supervisor's sarcastic remarks and the lack of support. When they saw that nothing was being done, they resigned unanimously from the quality group. In the end, the training had come to nothing because the problem of poor supervision was ignored.

Next Steps

Inexperienced managers typically complain that they just want to "get on with it" and not worry about all of this "soft" stuff. As the above incident testifies, in fact, interacting effectively with people on a personal level is the hard stuff. And this is the main reason why managers of all kinds don't want to deal with it. Engaging and motivating people means dealing with people as people, and not simply as repositories of information. As you interact with new and prospective partners, consider how you will work together.

To find out more about these core people skills, refer to the books listed in the reading guide below. Also consider attending an assertiveness skills or interpersonal communication skills training course. These interpersonal skills are also dealt with in some reputable conflict resolution, negotiation and consulting skills courses.

By practicing and using these nine techniques, you increase significantly the probability that you will align and keep aligned the interests of your stakeholders with your project's objectives. Note that these techniques are not a panacea for all of your project's ills. In spite of your best efforts, some stakeholders may continue to resist for any number of personal and organizational reasons. Applying these techniques gives your training project the best chance of success. Disregarding them is the best way to get your stakeholders offside from the start. Ignore them at your peril.

Further Reading:

  • Back, K. and Back, K. (1992). Assertiveness at Work: A Practical Guide to Handling Awkward Situations, 2nd ed., University Press, Cambridge
  • Bolton, R. (1997). People Skills, Prentice Hall, Sydney
  • Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing, London
  • O'Brien, P. (1992). Assertiveness: A Working Guide, Nicholas Brealey, London

Expert View Author: AIMM MAITD

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