Before writing about the how to, let me address why working with stakeholders instead of convincing them is important.
If you are focused on convincing someone about something it is usually, because you are in a real or perceived adversarial relationship (commonly it’s the latter). Instead of trying to come to a shared goal, you are trying to bring them around, show them the light, tell them what’s right.
This can surely work, but you have to start over at every step of the way and gaining someone’s trust is so much harder.
Working with stakeholders expressly means you try to pull in the same direction. It does not mean you will agree at all times and you must not just follow their wishes. But it is a good basis to come to a shared understanding, build on a shared set of values and in turn, manage to have a good and speedy process to come to an agreement.
There will always be stakeholders who need to be convinced, but do not allow this to become the modus operandi. Instead work towards working together and arrive at a common set of rules and understanding.
When you start working with a new shareholder, first try to understand their needs and their frame of reference.
You could start by asking the following questions:
- What is their frame of reference (a business mindset, an engineering standpoint or a design framework of thought)?
- What is their most important goal (a KPI, a timeline, a price, etc.)?
- How much do they know about the project? (Which is really important and difficult to ask, but a good question to establish trust, because you show you care.)
- What do they expect from you and how can and meet their expectations? (If their expectations are not realistic, guide them to an understanding. You will have to compromise and they do too. You will have to be careful, positive and make clear you will do your best to meet their expectations.)
For each question there may be a need to share information or discuss how to meet their needs and expectations; try to be prepared as much as possible.
If you need to push back on something, do so friendly and back up your reasoning with data and / or research. If you cannot do that, say so. And instead of letting this become a source of conflict, make clear you will follow up regularly and report and feedback on progress.
Doing so allows you to show them you are not just pushing opinions, but you are coming at a situation open minded and interested in archiving the common goal.
Finally make sure everyone is on the same page. It is quite natural to be short on time, so keep discussions short.
What can help is writing on a white board and erasing withdrawn ideas, keeping what is agreed upon.
Make sure to take notes, and compare them with minutes send out. If no minutes are taken, try to sum up what was decided and send it to everyone, so you can be sure you are all on the same boat.
When working in multilingual environments it may help a lot to compare notes with peers to make sure you got it right and of cause ask stakeholders to send comments.
This will likely still fail from time to time and there will be misunderstandings.
When that happens, remain positive and sort it out. That can be really hard (I’m a pessimist and I can be bone headed, so I’m struggling, too, but try and do not give up), but it’s worth it.
One note on ongoing relationships you might have: try the above if they went bad. If nothing helps, try to speak with peers and managers and if that does not help you might have to find another department or job.
But more often then not, a friendly question and a thank you can turn a shop around. 😄
To sum up: don’t be a fork, don’t sting. Be respectful, honest and always take care of yourself.