This story is a version of my talk “Managing Difficult Stakeholders,” given at ProductCamp Portland in 2016.


When you’re managing a valuable product, working with difficult stakeholders becomes crucial and can make or break your product. As a product manager, I interact with over 20 people a day; each person is unique, with different backgrounds, roles, industries and stories. My job revolves around having tough conversations, kindly saying no, and getting alignment. It’s easy to get stressed, distracted, and develop tunnel vision.

My fellow product managers and I came up with tool kit that helps us get through tough negotiations and ensures we stay focused on the end goal.

1. Focus on the Story

Every stakeholder has a story or problem they are trying to solve. Spend time figuring it out, or, better yet — ask them directly what motivates, frustrates and blocks them.

2. Don’t React

Sometimes emotions are triggered and buttons get pushed. When this happens, practice writing your thoughts down and not reacting. When you listen and take stock without reacting during difficult conversations, you can have a measured / strategic reaction at a later time with all the facts at hand.

3. Practice Deep Listening

managing difficult internal stakeholders
We see the world through our lens, so when we hear someone speak, we hear what we want to hear and ignore the rest. Take notes during the conversation and let them tell their story. Hear without judgment.

 4. Form a Support Group

Talk to a buddy or co-worker about the problem. Strategize and gather feedback. Sometimes outsiders help us discard our lens and look at the problem differently — ask them how they would tackle the situation if they were in your shoes.

5. Delegate the Problem

Sometimes it’s great to outsource the problem or issue to someone else. If you have this secret weapon — use it! Partner with SMES and coworkers to help brainstorm and strategize.

6. Prioritize

Prioritize feedback and problems you are going to deal with and have a plan of action. Sometimes it’s better to pick your battles.

7. Acknowledge the Mistake, Fix It, and Move On

If there was a misstep, apologize, acknowledge and move on to the next thing.

8. Take One Step at a Time

“Rome wasn’t built in a day…” When tackling a big problem, remember to breathe and take it one step and one day at a time.

9. Develop a Mantra

dealing with difficult stakeholders
Develop a word or phrase to get you through the difficult moments; remember that this too shall pass and you’ll get through it. Roll with the punches during difficult times.

10. Take a Break

You don’t have to solve the problem on the spot. Take time to think, get counsel or find other people who can help find a solution. Taking a break sometimes helps you see the issue from a different perspective.

Final Thoughts

When I pitched “Managing Difficult Stakeholders” at ProductCamp Portland 2016, I didn’t expect it to be such a popular topic. This session helped me connect product managers, designers, and customers in Portland community. It also helped me understand that I was not alone and the diversity of perspectives I encountered helped me add more negotiation tools to my toolkit.

Pitching this session also helped me get over my fear of speaking in front of 300+ people. I would encourage you to not only attend next year’s ProductCamp but also to be brave and pitch a topic, too.