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3 Stakeholder Negotiation Tactics for UX Researchers

Negotiating with your stakeholders doesn't have to be painful. Here are 3 tactics to help bring them to the table. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Thumy Phan

As a user researcher, you have to negotiate.

A lot.

You are always walking the delicate balance of pitching and begging. If you’re an introvert, this can be a challenging lesson. Luckily, there are good ways to handle negotiations.

I want to cover three of the best with you today:

  1. Listening with silence
  2. Be a mirror
  3. Understand fears through asking questions

I have engaged in quite a few conversations where internal stakeholders have decided against user research for various reasons. Either they don't believe in user research, don't think there is time, or genuinely believe they know what users already want. When I encounter this scenario, there are a few things I would like to do: yell, cry, and shake someone into believing user research is essential.

Instead of continually jeopardizing my career by yelling, crying, and shaking, I have used the three above methods to help in these instances.

Listening with silence

When individuals feel like you are listening to them, they are more likely to open up and clarify their thoughts and feelings. They can evaluate their ideas from a calmer mindset, which gives you a better chance of negotiating with them.

Have you ever tried to negotiate with a toddler? It is a lot easier when they are in a calm state of mind versus throwing a tantrum. The same goes for adults.

Listening and sitting in silence is not a passive activity. Have you ever "listened" to someone, only to realize you were planning your response the entire time? Or planning what you are going to eat for dinner? This is not listening. As a listener, you are a highly active participant in the conversation.

By listening, you gain access to the other person's mind. They are more likely to trust you, be more open, and feel like you are part of their "in-group." Instead of jumping in to share your thoughts or, even worse, interrupting someone in the middle of a sentence, you sit back and listen.

Another fun thing about silence is that people want to fill it. By just listening and being quiet, people will naturally continue to talk and fill in the silence. When they keep talking, you may uncover important information they initially left out.

Let’s take a look at an example scenario using this method between an internal stakeholder (IS) and the user researcher (UR):

IS: "I think we should implement this new feature that makes customers rate our products they just bought before being able to browse new products."

UR: (Silence)

IS: "I just think it makes sense because we want people to know how to rate things. And we need more product ratings. The more people who rate our products, the more people will buy them. People trust ratings."

UR: (Silence)

IS: "I mean, it matters to our revenue. If there aren't ratings, then people don't buy. Doesn't that make sense?"

UR: "Yes, it does make sense."

IS: "That's right. So, what do you think?"

Instead of imposing your ideas on the other person, you are learning more about what they need and waiting for them to ask you what you think. It is easier to have a conversation about how to collaborate now that the person feels listened to.

TIP: I usually wait about 5-10 seconds to see if the person will continue talking before I respond. 5-10 seconds can seem like an eternity of awkwardness, but I promise it gets better with practice!

Be a mirror

Mirroring is imitation in the most basic form. We unconsciously copy each other to bond, provide comfort, and build trust. We do this by imitating body language, tone of voice, speech, and vocabulary.

Mirroring has a significant psychological impact. It signals to the other person that we are similar to them, and, through that, builds trust much faster. We are subconsciously drawn to what is similar and tend to avoid what is not. When you mirror another person, you are telling them to trust you, and that you are on the same side.

How do you apply such a tactic to internal stakeholders? Repeat the last 1-3 important words the person said (or a small phrase). When you do this, you trigger an instinct, which automatically makes the person you are talking to elaborate on their thought.

You also establish a deeper connection. Asking "why" or "what do you mean by that" causes defensiveness. Instead, mirror the person. Sometimes people will end up talking themselves out of their own opinions!

Let’s take a look at a scenario with our friends IS and UR:

IS: "I think we should implement this new feature that makes customers rate our products they just bought before being able to browse new products."

UR: "Implement this new feature?"

IS: "Yes, we need to implement the new feature for rating products so that we can get more ratings on our product, which means people will buy more."

UR: Silence

IS: "I just think it makes sense because we want people to know how to rate things. And we need more product ratings. The more people who rate our products, the more people will buy them. People trust ratings."

UR: "People trust ratings?"

IS: "Yeah, I mean, we know our customers trust ratings when buying things."

UR: "We know our customers trust ratings?"

IS: "I believe they do. What do you think?"

Just like the silence, this will feel awkward at first. You will think, "Oh, people will notice I am doing this." However, just try and watch what happens. Combine this technique with silence!

Understanding by asking questions

Internal stakeholders are your other users. And the best thing that you can do is deeply understand them. And how do we do this? The same way with our users. We ask them questions.

By asking questions, we open up the opportunity for conversation, rather than defensiveness. We invite others to explain their thoughts instead of merely assuming what they feel about user research and any experiences they have.

Questions you can ask internal stakeholders

  • Why do you feel negative about user research?
    1. Understand the best ways to quell their fears
  • Tell me what happened the last time you did user research.
    1. Understand the fears or expectations stakeholders may have
  • What is your ideal timeline and approach for this project?
    1. With this, you can find ways to insert user research into their timeline.
  • What are the most significant barriers to conducting user research on this project
    1. You can begin to understand how to fit research into a project, so it overcomes these specific barriers.
  • If we could manage to do any user research on this project, what would it be?
    1. Opens the conversation up to discover what they think user research might mean for this project
  • What could be some ideal outcomes of user research on this project?
    1. Highlights the potential positive outcomes of user research

These types of questions allow you to understand how people view user research and what their fears may be about conducting user research. You want to create an open space for both your stakeholders and users, in which you can facilitate a conversation filled with empathy and understanding. Once you've identified the root of the fear, you cater the research project to address the concerns.

When you come from a place where you understand and use these methods, you can have more fruitful conversations. You will find stakeholders easier to manage and more likely to engage with your ideas.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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