How to Handle Stakeholder Objections

How to Handle Stakeholder Objections

Handling stakeholder objections is an unavoidable part of life as a Project Manager. It ought to be one of my Project Management Rules. Resistance is Inevitable.

Because, the reality is that, if you ever want to innovate, create, or change something, there is one thing you need to be ready for: resistance.

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Resistance is a necessary part of the life of every Project Manager. So you need to be able to handle the objections in a calm and positive way. Unfortunately, most of us do not get trained in handling resistance. So, instead, we come to fear it.

How to Handle Stakeholder Objections - Because a Projecr Manager needs to deal with resistance.
How to Handle Stakeholder Objections

The Reaction to Stakeholder Objections is often Fear… and Resistance

Your reaction is often to resist the resistance. This can create an almost impenetrable barrier between you and your stakeholders. Meaningful communication grinds to a halt. And therefore progress stops, and actions become driven by fear.

So, what can you learn from those colleagues who are most likely to have learned how to deal effectively with stakeholder objections – through training and experience? These are, of course, salespeople. They encounter objections and resistance every day. It’s their job!

Let’s look at ten lessons I have drawn from salespeople, about how to handle stakeholder objections.

‘I don’t see why we need to have this conversation’

Making changes or buying something new start with recognising that the current situation is no longer ideal. ‘If it ain’t broke: don’t fix it’ is a reasonable response.

If it is the stakeholder objection you get, then you must first show them that the current situation is broken. They won’t listen to you until you show them why they should. So, demonstrate a compelling need for your stakeholder to engage with you and your project.

‘I am not ready to listen’

It is easy to get distracted. And, if you are, then it’s hard to engage with new or challenging ideas.

So, if for any reason, your stakeholder is focused on something else; physically, mentally, or emotionally, then respect their current priorities. Do not waste your breath trying to persuade them. Now is not the right time.

Stay alert for the right time or do something simpler: ask them when the right time will be.

‘I don’t understand what you are telling me’

We all think we are great at explaining things. But the truth is often very different.

Your explanations sound great to you because you already understand it. Few people will come out and admit they don’t understand you, though.

But you can suspect that this is the case, when your stakeholder’s objection is a stock excuse that bears little relation to your point.

But here is the important thing… Don’t just repeat yourself. That won’t help. Instead, find a new way to explain your point.

‘I am the wrong person to talk to’

For some stakeholders, this is an excuse to avoid engaging with the problem. For them, you need to go back to the first example.

But some stakeholders may genuinely not have the authority to say yes. Or, perhaps they do. But they don’t believe that they have the authority.

So, find out who does, and also what their relationship is with the person you are speaking to. They may not have the authority, but they may have influence with the person who does.

‘It is not top of my agenda’

Your project is at the top of your agenda. But, what is important to you may not be important to your stakeholders. They may have other things to attend to, about which you are unaware.

This can be like our second example. They aren’t ready to listen.

But maybe (as in our first example) they simply don’t recognise the importance of what you are proposing.

But if it really is not important to your stakeholder, don’t waste their time or you will simply find yourself facing more resistance.

The answer is to understand your stakeholder’s priorities and assess how your project fits in. Either wait until it is high enough up their priority list, or find a way to demonstrate how important it is to them. You need to make that case first, to pre-empt this type of stakeholder objection.

‘I am not ready to say yes’

You may see this as an objection, but this is not really resistance:

‘not ready to say yes’ is not the same as ‘no’.

If anything, it is a signal that yes may be coming: all I need is some more time, more answers, or more concessions. You need to understand more about the stakeholder objections, and address them. The simplest approach is to ask the obvious question:

‘what else do you need, so you will be ready to decide?’

‘I don’t want what you are selling’

This is where we start to see substantive stakeholder objections. They don’t like your message.

At its simplest, the easiest way to tackle this form of resistance is to respect their autonomy and offer them something else. But, of course, this may not be practical.

However, it is quite possible, that they cannot yet see how what you are offering will meet their needs or address their priorities. If you have been correct in assessing these and you are confident that your project is the best way to address them, you need to find a better way to convince stakeholder.

‘I don’t know how to manage it’

Some stakeholders do not object because they think something is wrong: they just don’t know how to make the change.

It is no good convincing them that you are implementing a great piece of software if you can’t offer them the training in how to use it. They will never want to adopt it.

So, treat this as a more specific version of ‘not ready to say yes’. Find out what they need to know, to feel fully ready to engage with and adopt your project.

‘I don’t think I can cope with it’

This one is trickier than the last. Because it is not just about not knowing how; it is about self-doubt and fear.

This stakeholder object says ‘I may know how, but I don’t believe I can’. So, your response to this has to be supportive, rather than directive, reinforcing the stakeholder’s confidence in themselves.

‘I don’t like you’

This could be personal; you may be the wrong messenger.

More likely, it is about the associations your stakeholder makes around you as the messenger.

Something they connect you with, whether from their past, a stereotype, or a prejudice, is getting in the way of properly engaging with you. May be it’s just that, today, they are in a bad mood.

In the short term, the easiest solution is to find a new messenger. The tougher (but better) option is to start the long-term task of building a fresh relationship.

And if the resistance you encounter is merely bad behaviour, then you may opt to deal with it.

And one bonus extra lesson…

I promised you ten. And I delivered ten. 

But there’s one that you can’t and won’t be able to handle. It’s the ‘walk-away’ objection…

‘I don’t want to…’

Some people don’t raise objections because they disagree, don’t understand, or are scared.

They resist because they like the feeling of resisting.

There is not much you can do here, because it is the game they enjoy. They win when you play.

So, you cannot win.

All you can do is to stop playing the game and start a new conversation about the process.  

What is Your Experience of Handling Stakeholder Objections?

I’d love to hear your experience, advice, or questions. So, start a conversation. Just pop your thoughts in the comments below, and I will respond to every contribution.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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