Tips for communicating with emotional stakeholders

29 06 2010

Part of our job as P2 practitioners is to deliver difficult news. Decision-making processes often result in outcomes that carry impact to a few so that there may be a benefit to many. In infrastructure, this frequently takes the form of property impacts or change in access to one’s property. And there is little else that holds more emotional attachment than one’s home and business. As I prepare for a neighborhood meeting with property owners this week, I am reviewing my list of tips for communicating with emotional stakeholders:

  1. Mentally prepare ahead of time. It takes a lot of energy to meaningfully engage in contentious issues. Accept that it is okay for people to be emotional and be willing to let people vent their fears and frustrations in order to achieve a more productive discussion later.
  2. Clearly communicate the purpose of the meeting or conversation. Don’t try to cover everything all at once. When emotions are high, focus on the most important pieces of information or select actions that must take place now. By stating a clear objective, you can work with emotional stakeholders on addressing a single issue rather than taking on a world of issues.
  3. Be aware that some stakeholders are hung up on past actions. Acknowledge that you have no authority over previous commitments and focus on what can be done today.
  4. Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. Practice good listening by being present of mind and asking questions to help understand the source of concern.
  5. Be sincere. Acknowledge that you understand the concerns you hear. Offer to equip people with information about the process and circumstances of the project so that they can fully participate.
  6. Don’t defend, but correct. When people are misinformed, it is important to supply accurate information. Do this in a way that corrects the misinformation and resist the tendency to defend the right information or point fingers about bad information sources.
  7. Demonstrate you are listening. Take notes and summarize what you have heard. Let stakeholders know what will happen with their comments, including how the project team plans to respond to comments received.
  8. Don’t make commitments. Acknowledge that you do not have authority to make a specific commitment, but share the knowledge you have about the topic.
  9. Identify a next step or action the stakeholder can take. Stakeholders are more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation when they know what the next step is or feel like they can do something about it.
  10. Know when to walk away. In a situation where a stakeholder is behaving irrationally or abusively, close the conversation and move on. Ask the individual to come back when they can discuss things in a more civil manner or simply state that you do not tolerate that kind of interaction.