Product Teams

How to deal with difficult stakeholders as a product manager

Published Apr 22, 2020

The product organization is inherently cross-functional, partnering with multiple teams across the company and serving customers and end users. As a result, disagreements are bound to happen in a product manager’s day-to-day — but what matters most is how you handle them.

In a recent webinar we were joined by product management expert Roman Pichler, where he shared some tips for how product managers can better handle conflict (all from his new book, “How to Lead in Product Management”). Here’s a summary of some of his best advice:

One product team, multiple stakeholders

Roman began with the idea that effective collaboration can’t happen if we don’t deal with the natural conflicts that arise when two or more people (or groups) work together. He even said conflict can be a source of creativity and actually strengthen collaboration, it all just depends on how issues are handled.

As we all know, collaboration is central to the product manager role (Pichler calls it a “networked” role). PMs are simultaneously supporting customers, internal business stakeholders (sales, marketing, finance, executives), and development teams — all of whom have different needs, goals, and opinions. As such, resolving conflict effectively and building trust are two key skills product leaders should hone.

At the beginning of the webinar, Pichler introduced an example scenario where the head of sales comes to you as a PM and insists that a new feature be added to the product. In your mind, you know the development team is already overloaded and that there’s no way you can add more to their plate. So, what do you do?

The Behavioral Change Stairway Model

After going through some strategies you shouldn’t use in this example scenario (e.g. passive aggression and conflict avoidance), Pichler introduced the Behavioral Change Stairway Model. This was first developed by the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, and includes a five-stage method to changing someone else’s behavior: active listening, empathy, rapport, influence, and behavior change.

  • Active listening: first and foremost, it’s important to actually listen to the person you’re in conflict with (e.g. for a product manager, this could be a fellow PM, a member of another team, or an executive).
  • Empathy: that deep listening will then help you build empathy, wherein you try to understand the other person’s perspective and needs. 
  • Rapport: when people feel understood they are more likely to trust us, which enables us to build rapport. 
  • Influence: this closer relationship is a necessary baseline in order to encourage someone to listen to our perspective.
  • Behavior change: by following these first four steps, you’re much more likely to change someone’s behavior compared to if you go into the conversation telling someone why they’re wrong.

Techniques for better listening

Roman emphasized that the first step of the Behavioral Change Stairway Model — active listening — is key, and we can train ourselves to be better listeners. Here’s three of his tips:

  1. Be fully present and listen attentively
  2. Keep an open mind and try to put any judgement aside
  3. Listen for facts (what is being said), feelings (emotions that are present, often shown through body language), and needs

Bonus tip: when we’re only communicating with others virtually, it’s even more important to build our listening skills and make a conscious effort to be patient and attentive. We no longer have the subtle clues that come with face-to-face interactions, so be extra mindful of how you interact on phone calls, video chats, Slack messages, and e-mail. 

Techniques for building trust

Building trust is a crucial part of being a product manager: you have to build trust not only with your internal partners and peers, but with your customers as well. Here are four things to remember:

  1. Speak and act with integrity
  2. Get to know people and allow them to get to know you
  3. Involve others in product decisions by encouraging them to share their ideas and/or concerns
  4. Be supportive and offer help to others whenever possible and appropriate 
  5. Strengthen your product management expertise (it’s difficult to follow someone’s advice if they lack the appropriate knowledge)

Want to watch Roman Pichler’s full presentation? Check out the webinar recording here:


If you’d like to hear more on this subject from Roman, you can find details about his latest book, “How to Lead in Project Management” here.