Overcoming stakeholder resistance through dialogue



Optimal Consulting



One of the most common challenges project managers face is stakeholder resistance. The ability to influence others is at the heart of project management. However, it is not so much about persuading stakeholders, but rather about incorporating and orchestrating them into the greater project setting. This workshop will explore why and how building a dialogue with stakeholders can become the most valuable leadership capacity in overcoming stakeholder resistance.

Keywords: stakeholder management, dialogue, leadership, change management


Your success as a project manager is ultimately tied to your ability to manage stakeholder expectations. If your key stakeholders believe that project expectations were not met, then the project is considered a failure. This perception may or may not be accurate or even logical. In fact, the stakeholder's perception is often a reflection of the quality of the project manager's relationship with the stakeholder. It is not possible to control stakeholder behavior or beliefs; however, it is possible to control their level of engagement. The way to control engagement is through dialogue. Stakeholder engagement implies a willingness to have a meaningful dialogue about the issues of interest to stakeholders of the project.


The concept of a stakeholder originated with Tavistock Institute in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Freedman, 2010). Stakeholders were defined as “those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist.” Currently, the word stakeholder has come to mean a person or group with a vested interest in a project or organization. Stakeholder management is so crucial that A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013) provides detailed guidance on this subject.

Managing stakeholders is the tenth Knowledge Area in the PMBOK® Guide. According to the PMBOK® Guide, a stakeholder is considered any person, group, or organization that is actively involved in a project, or whose interests may be positively or negatively impacted by execution or completion of the project (PMI, 2013). Simply put, a stakeholder is a person who has something to gain or lose through the outcomes of a project (Dialogue by Design, 2008).

The two types of stakeholders are internal and external.

Internal project stakeholders typically include the project sponsor, project team, executive management, support staff, and internal customers for the project, such as functional managers.

External project stakeholders are outside the organization or people not directly involved in the project and can include clients, end users, contractors, consultants, line organizations, controlling organizations, third parties, and competitors.

According to Project Stakeholder Management (www.projectstakeholder.com, n.d.) other stakeholders include:

  • Potential customers
  • Labor unions
  • Key suppliers

In general, stakeholders and their interests should be identified in the beginning of the project. There are several techniques for identifying stakeholders. Some of the most popular methods are brainstorming, collecting names from organizational resources such as the project sponsor, and consulting with organizations that have been involved in similar endeavors.


The processes of project stakeholder management consist of four basic concepts:

  1. Identify all stakeholders
  2. Plan stakeholder management
  3. Manage stakeholder engagement
  4. Control stakeholder engagement

Once the stakeholder has been identified, you'll need to quantify and document certain information into a stakeholder registry or list. The registry should contain basic identifying information, such as contact information. Be careful to note the person's role in the project. Is your stakeholder internal or external? There should also be some type of assessment of the stakeholder's expectations and their level of influence in relation to the project.

Within the registry, each project stakeholder should be assigned a classification. Classification is one way to partition the information gathered to help you better manage each stakeholder or group. A popular strategy is to map out all the stakeholders on your project and partition them according to influence and interest. Is the person resistant or supportive of the project? This is information that you'll need to add to the stakeholder management plan.

The importance of identification and classification are essential to managing resistant stakeholders. Why? A resistant stakeholder can impact the project in many ways. A resistant stakeholder can, for example, delay the approval process, undermine the project manager's authority, or even launch a competing project.


Having identified and assessed project stakeholders is a critical factor for project success. It is a first step for effective stakeholder management. Numerous books and articles have been written about the various approaches to stakeholder management. In our own experience, there is one capacity every project leader ought to have, no matter what: listening.

Listening, from all leadership capacities, is probably the one that's most underrated. Everyone talks about vision, project objectives, project management technical skills, etc. But listening is really at the source of all great leadership. Listening ensures that leaders connect with the situation at hand. Any lack of listening skills leads to a disconnection between leaders on the one hand and reality on the other. This can be fatal in a project setting with influential stakeholders. Listening does not equal listening. Instead, there are various forms of listening. Scharmer and Kaufer (2013) distinguish four levels of listening:

1) Level 1 is superficial listening. It basically serves the function that the listener wants his or her opinions or judgments to be reconfirmed. It is a situation where you hear that the person is talking. But you are not really paying attention to the meaning of the words of the person. Instead, you have a predefined agenda you want to go through. Hence, you are looking for cues that confirm your preconceived notions. Consequently, you may even dictate the flow of the conversation. Questions are closed (yes or no questions), not giving the other person too much of a choice to express his or her opinion or own agenda.

2) On level 2, the listener notices and acknowledges differences and captures new information from the other side. Scharmer (2009) calls this level “factual listening.” You add open questions and give the other person the ability to express his or her view. It may or may not correspond with your own view. Hence, you notice differences and disagreements and document them accordingly as input for the project agenda.

3) On level 3, the listener is not only aware of the other person, but actually sees things from the other's perspective and walks in the shoes of the other person. Scharmer calls this level “empathic listening.” Not only do you learn about the other person's views, you go a step further and try to understand why he or she thinks a certain way, what motivates them, what goals they have, and why. This does not mean that you have to agree with everything the other person is saying, but you actively try to understand his or her viewpoint and see things from their perspective. Documenting your insights is input for your project agenda, plus it expands it as you may grasp the systemic environment of your project.

4) The deepest level of listening, “generative listening,” as Scharmer calls it, allows the people to connect with each other. New ideas and viewpoints may pop up which were not or could not be anticipated beforehand. An example would be that you share a problem with a stakeholder and propose a solution. Your goal is to gain approval for your proposal. However, in the process of the conversation, you learn to see things from another, possibly new perspective which sheds the problem and the solution in a different light. Together with the stakeholder, you start developing a completely new solution. You let go of preconceived notions and something comes into the picture. This is the deepest level of a true dialogue.

The four levels of listening can also be described as an iceberg. On the superficial level, you see the ice floating on the ocean. It is the visible behavior of the stakeholders and the objective factors of your projects. However, in order to understand and lead a project to success, it is not sufficient to limit your viewpoint to this superficial level. You need to know what is or was behind the project. What motivated it in the first place? How does it fit into the vision and goals of the organization and how well do the various stakeholders support or not support the project and why? The deeper you observe, listen, and understand the project setting and its systemic context, the greater the leverage you have in guiding the project to its desired outcome. Once you understand the various levels of this iceberg and start seeing the project in its systemic environment, it becomes easier to orchestrate it. You become a conductor, bringing the various musicians together, coordinating them, and forming a whole—without telling them individually what they need to do and how. The key capacity is to listen to the many players, conducting, giving the musicians cues, and thus, aligning the whole orchestra. The orchestra is no longer made up of individual musicians, but now forms a synchronized unit, a unified system. Becoming this conductor is not easy. It is a learning journey requiring an open mind, will, and heart. One of the tools on this journey is the stakeholder interview.


First of all, it is important to understand that the goal of a stakeholder interview is to influence a stakeholder one way or another. The purpose of a stakeholder interview is to see your project from the perspective of your stakeholders. It answers the questions: “What do my stakeholders want from me? What do they need me for?” You do not want to stay on the superficial level of the iceberg. You want to understand what drives and motivates the stakeholder. It is not about you, but rather, the stakeholder. This means you need to build trust from the outset of the interview. The following steps aim to help set up and conduct the interview (Presencing Institute, n.d.):

Step 1

  • Identify the stakeholders who are relevant to your current situation or challenge/opportunity.
  • Define/revise questions to adjust to the specific context. Schedule appointments.
  • Decide whether to send your questions to the stakeholder in advance.

Step 2

  • Before you meet the interviewee, allow for some quiet preparation.
  • For example, take 20-30 minutes prior to an interview to relax and anticipate the conversation with an open mind and heart.

Step 3

  • During the interview, listen with your mind and heart wide open, take notes.
  • Ask questions spontaneously: Feel free to deviate from your questionnaire if important questions occur to you. The questionnaire is designed to serve you and your work—not the other way around.
  • Sample questions:
    • What is your most important objective, and how can I help you realize it?
    • What criteria do you use to assess whether my contribution to your work has been successful?

Step 4

  • Right after the interview, take time to reflect on key insights, capture your key thoughts in writing.

Step 5

  • Close the feedback loop: Right after each interview, send a thank-you note to your interviewee (within12 hours).

Following these steps and practicing empathic and, if at all possible, generative listening turns a simple interview into a dialogue. It is not a one-way street for information, but becomes an exchange of ideas in both directions, from and to the stakeholders. This helps build transparency and trust which are key in effective stakeholder management and project success. The image of the project manager as a conductor becomes handy once more. You may prepare and conduct interviews (the musician[s]), but you are nothing if you cannot listen to the other side (the musician(s), the orchestra as a whole). You have to give the other side the space to unfold, to play, and to share their views. You have to understand how your project fits in into the greater systemic environment, where you have interfaces and corresponding or conflicting goals. This is the prerequisite to align your project with your stakeholders and lead it to success.


Coming back to the initially described challenge of stakeholder resistance, you cannot break resistance by pushing your agenda. This may yield temporary (but not long-lasting) results. You overcome stakeholder resistance by listening to them—not on the superficial level, but on a deeper level. Suspend your own judgment of resisting stakeholders. First notice and acknowledge different viewpoints, then try to understand why they disagree with you. Look at issues from their perspectives and acknowledge their viewpoints. This builds a level of trust which is the door opener for generative listening. Not only can it help overcome resistance, it can also assist the development of new and better solutions for the sake of the project. This is why conducting a dialogue is probably the best and most effective way to overcome stakeholder resistance.



Carla Fair-Wright is an award-winning author and project consultant with an extensive background in software development, project management, training, and consulting. She is the chapter author of two books, Encyclopedia of Energy Engineering and Technology and Web Based Energy Information and Control Systems: Case Studies and Applications. She has appeared on FOX News, PMI podcasts, “The Terri Craig Show for radio,” and “BusinessMakers Small Business Network Show.”


Thomas Juli, PhD, is an expert for agile and systemic organizational transformation, leadership development, and people innovation. Until recently, he led a strategic organizational development program at the global automotive supplier, Magna International. Next to independent consulting (www.motivate2b.com), he mentors start-ups and is a lecturer for innovation and technology management at a private research university. He is the author of Leadership Principles for Project Success.





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Dialogue by Design. (2008). A handbook of public & stakeholder engagement. Retrieved from http://designer.dialoguebydesign.net/docs/

Freeman, R. E., Harrison, J. S., Wicks, A. C., Parmar B. L., & Colle, S. (2010). Stakeholder theory: The state of the art. (p. 46). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, L., & Miles, S. (2006). Stakeholders theory and practice. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Presencing Institute. (n.d.). Otto Scharmer. http://www.presencing.com/permissions. Published under Creative Commons Agreement.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Stakeholder Management. (n.d.) Projectstakeholder.com. Retrieved from http://www.projectstakeholder.com

Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Scharmer, C. O., & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the emerging future: From ego-system to eco-system economies. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Denning, S. (2010). The leader's guide to radical management: Re-inventing the workplace for the 21st century. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Juli, T. (2011). Leadership principles for project success. New York, NY: CRC Press.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Currency Doubleday.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

© 2016, Carla Fair-Wright, Thomas Juli
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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