Six Essential Tips for Mastering the Art of Saying No to Stakeholders

Evelyn Tian
Stakeholders are intelligent, resourceful and insightful. We want to collaborate with stakeholders and work with active stakeholder management. 

Yet, "how to work with difficult stakeholders", "how to say no to stakeholders", "how to cope with hard headed stakeholders", are typical questions that come up during our public coaching circles, and workshops. 

Check out for some tips to master the art of better stakeholder collaboration. 
Imagine stepping into the shoes of a product owner, navigating a landscape teeming with highly engaged and diverse stakeholders. Each one is enthusiastic, bringing a unique perspective driven by their passion for what they perceive as 'agile' benefits. Their demands are frequent and varied: some introduce new requirements, others seek to modify existing ones, and some present complex challenges constrained by fixed budgets, timelines, and specifications. This dynamic environment demands constant vigilance as you strive to balance evolving needs while safeguarding the integrity and progress of your product.

In such situations, you might find yourself instinctively wanting to outright refuse requests, but your emotional intelligence guides you towards a more tactful approach. Let’s explore how to say “no” politely, gracefully, and strategically, as mastering this skill is crucial not only for your well-being but also for maintaining effectiveness for you and your product teams. 

First let's start with some essential principles. 

Principle 1 - Show Gratitude and Appreciation Instead of Apologies

Research shows that cultivating a grateful attitude not only enhances our own lives but also increases the likelihood that we will inspire and uplift others with our encouragement and joy.

Principle 2 - Express Sincere Compliments Before Declining

Everyone appreciates recognition; it’s human nature. When you begin by genuinely acknowledging the stakeholder’s contribution, it softens the impact of a subsequent refusal. This approach helps stakeholders feel valued, understanding that while you appreciate their suggestions, current limitations prevent you from adopting them.

Principle 3 - Lead Responses with Honesty

Transparency fosters trust. Preface your reasons with phrases like "To be honest", "To be completely honest", or simply "Honestly". This not only personalizes your response but also reinforces your integrity in handling such requests.

Some Example Can Help

Example integrating the Essential Principle 1 to 3. 

'Thank you so much for your innovative ideas to enhance our product! Your insights are always invaluable, and they have the potential to significantly benefit our offerings. Our current focus is on fulfilling customer orders within tight deadlines. Honestly at this moment, I can’t see a way to incorporate new initiatives without impacting our commitments.'

By implementing the above principles, we can effectively manage stakeholder expectations without compromising relationships.

Remember, saying "no" is not just about refusal; it's about respecting your limits and maintaining focus on your priorities while acknowledging and appreciating the contributions of others.
Principle 4 - Postpone for More Informed Decisions
As human beings, we experience a wide range of emotions which can impact our decision-making. For example, you might feel frustrated or even angry if a stakeholder repeatedly pushes their agenda. It's important to recognize these feelings and allow yourself time to cool down.

Reapproach the conversation with a clear head to ensure you make well-informed decisions.

Examples integrating Principle 4:

"Thank you for your dedication to improving our product! I'm currently gathering improvement ideas from various stakeholders. I’ll circle back to you later today with a clearer perspective once I have a more comprehensive overview. How does this work for you?"


"Thank you for your eagerness to enhance our product with fresh insights. To be completely honest, after working until midnight with an American client, I'm not at my best mentally. Could we possibly revisit this discussion tomorrow when I'm more clear-headed?"

Principle 5 - Propose an Alternative

We can try to soften the impact of a refusal can be achieved by suggesting an alternative or compromise. This approach helps prevent any hurt feelings or guilt associated with saying no, and helps us feel less stressful.

Examples integrating Principle 5:

"Thank you for your continuous insight and contributions towards our product’s improvement. We have a roadmap planning workshop soon, and I I believe that the new requirement you brought in could be a great addition to our list of new opportunities. How do you feel about this? "

And then if needed, we can add in the part:

"Honestly I don’t see a way to integrate this into the current release."

Principle 6 - Encourage Stakeholders to Self-Reflect on Their Requests

Though listed as the very last in this blog, it is so-so important. Let's picture this...

How ideal would it be if stakeholders could recognize when to withdraw their demands? Fortunately, this is entirely possible with the right approach. By guiding stakeholders to consider how their requests align with overarching goals, you can encourage them to reassess their demands independently.

Example with Principle 6 for a Strategic Twist

"Thank you so much for your continuous attention to improving our product! Your insights consistently bring valuable perspectives. Currently, our primary focus for the current roadmap is on enhancing product engagement. To be completely honest with you, I'm not sure how we could seamlessly integrate the new requirement you've proposed."

This strategy prompts the stakeholder to reflect on their suggestion in relation to the overarching goals of the roadmap, potentially leading them to reconsider the timing or relevance of their request.

Practice Makes Perfection - Practice Leads to Happiness

Let's move into a common but challenging scenario: a stakeholder requests that a requirement for their key account be completed by the end of May. You already know that meeting this deadline is not feasible. Here's how you can apply our principles to respond effectively:

"Thank you for following up on the XYZ requirement. I appreciate your commitment to staying on top of the needs and satisfaction of our key accounts. At this moment, honestly, I need to review our capabilities and timelines more closely before making a commitment."

"Thank you for your diligence with the XYZ requirement and for consistently monitoring our key accounts' needs. Can I get back to you by tomorrow after I've had a chance to review our product backlog items and the progress of our current increment?"

"Thank you for your active engagement with the XYZ requirement. Given our current project scope and deadlines, to be completely honest with you, meeting the full requirement by the end of May might be challenging. What if we break the XYZ requirement into two more manageable parts? We could aim to deliver the first segment by mid-May, allowing us to gather essential feedback early on. How does that sound to you?"

"Thank you for following up on the XYZ requirement. Your diligence in managing key accounts is invaluable. Currently, we have three major requirements for this account: ABC, LMN, and XYZ. Given our current resources and timelines, honestly, I’m concerned about our capacity to meet all these by the end of May. What would be the highest priority for you? "

By using these approaches, you not only manage expectations effectively but also maintain a positive and constructive relationship with your stakeholders, ensuring ongoing communication and understanding.

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Stay tuned for our next blog post, where I’ll introduce a tool that has proven essential for effective stakeholder management and collaboration, used successfully by multiple clients.

In our Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner (A-CSPO) workshop, you will get to take a deeper dive into prioritization and of course many other subjectives, including Evelyn’s unique 4-D stakeholder related tools, hypothesis driven product development, roadmap design, product metrics and more.

You will be working with Evelyn Tian, who has solid hands-on product manager experience, product management for large complex products, and has been mentoring product, and product professionals across different industrials.

As a coach and a trainer with solid product experience, she facilitates her product related workshops in her very unique way, and has supported product professionals through mentoring and training.

Want to advance Agile product Ownership, check out our offerings on the entire product path.
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