016 - How to Push Back on Stakeholders (without Threatening Your Career)


  • Dealing with urgent requests from seniors when you're already overloaded
  • The need to balance control and reputation
  • What the stakeholder may not be aware of
  • Listen and acknowledge - meets their need for feeling heard
  • Recognise their potential reasons
  • Explain your situation and rationale, say no.
  • Suggest options - part, delay or external resource
  • Prevent a stall or argument
  • Act more like a consultant than a protiective gatekeeper.


Click the image below to download your FREE copy of it immediately.

Book by Robert Cialdini (expert on Influence and persuasion):


Imagine you're the senior manager of a team of specialists and you basically serve various business units in the company.

One day, a senior stakeholder from another business unit comes to you and says, "I have this really important project I need done and I want you to make it a priority." (Note - We're talking here about significant requests, not quick ones that take a few minutes to complete.)

Now this presents you with a problem because:

  • Your team is already resource constrained
  • You're all very busy
  • Other people even more senior than this person have requested higher priority.

How do you say no to the request without upsetting the relationship or your reputation? Or how do you help them choose an alternative?

I'll show you a way to do that AND have them walk away glad they talked to you.

Brian and Julia

Let's follow Brian, a technology team manager and Julia, a senior stakeholder from marketing.

Julia comes to Brian and asks him to take on a new project for her.....now.

What she seems to want is for Brian's analysts to do some research on whether the Company's new mobile app for bookings is performing well. She thinks it'll require one FTE about five days of time.

The problem is, Brian's team is resource-constrained and currently very busy because they serve almost every Company department across a range of projects. However, Julia wants her project to come first.

How does Brian say no, without causing friction or jeopardising his reputation with Julia?

Here's what I recommend he does.

Step 1 - Acknowledge

Brian should listen to her request, pause slightly and then acknowledge it. This should be the first thing he does because it demonstrates a willingness to be responsive and respectful. It meets Julia's need to feel heard.

For example:

(Brian) "So, you're wanting to find out how the new app is performing particularly in the South..."

Notice that he should not:

  • React without thinking
  • Get annoyed that here is another request from someone who clearly has no idea what he deals with
  • Make excuses
  • Parrot back to her what she said.

Step 2 - Recognise the Reason

Brian should then give recognition to why Julia has made the request. It won't be because she just loves making project requests, or because she has nothing better to do. She has a reason (whether that is sufficient to sway him or not). He should recognise that. It meets Julia's need to feel understood.

For example: 

(Brian) "...I'm guessing you need to know whether the time and effort put into it is paying off, is that about right?"

Notice that he should not:

  • Say no
  • Go straight into his answer
  • Be too definitive with his speculation (he might be wrong).

He might even follow up his 'I'm guessing' statement with another question, like "Are there any other reasons too?"

Step 3 - Explain the Situation

Brian should then outline his current situation which shows that he isn't just shooting from the hip. He has a clear rationale for why he's going to say no. Not too much explanation, just enough to lay out the situation. It helps Julia empathise, which is important if she's to be willing to look at alternatives.

For example:

(Brian): "Julia, I want to be able to help in anyway I can. Now, here's my situation......we only have a team of four....

....other seniors like you have also made a huge number of project requests....

....the key issue for us is time constraint. 

What that means is we can't get to your project in the timeframe you need."

Notice that he shouldn't:

  • Over-talk it by going into great detail
  • Be vague about why it's a 'no', or 'not yet'
  • Blame her for the situation.

Step 4 - Suggest some options

This is where Brian can start to add value to the situation by taking the conversation somewhere useful. In other words, he should suggest some options. This doesn't take a lot of time and it conveys a willingness to be helpful and help Julia find a way forward. It helps meet her need for a solution.

For example:

(Brian) "Julia, can I make a suggestion or two?"

At this point, the suggestions raised really depend on the situation. But some options might be:

"Can we do a part of the project in the timeframe to give you an initial steer to begin with?"

"Can we delay the project until a month's time, when I'm confident we can make it a priority?"

"What about finding out some similar information but by engaging an external contractor to survey our app users?"

By suggesting options you are adding value to a situation which otherwise might have stalled or turned into a sour taste.

Step 5 - Ask and Discuss

Finally, I recommend Brian makes it a conversation not a declaration. And he can do that by simply asking, "What do you think?"  In this way, he's acting more like a consultant than a technical team manager closely guarding his resources.

Again, this is for a situation where a significant request has been made.


Research by Robert Cialdini and others shows that, in the end, even if Brian has to say, "Julia, I'm sorry but for the reasons we've discussed we just can't take this on right now," because he's taken the time to acknowledge, recognise, explain, suggest and ask she'll be happier to take his "no" than if he didn't do those things. And that's because he's been respectful and reasonable about it.

Most of us, if given a decent rationale, will accept a no.


When you next need to push back on a request (whether that's in person, in a meeting or via email) use all the steps of ARESA to show respect, say no and add value.

Free Download

To get a one page guide to refer to, download my FREE Guide: How to Successfully Push Back on Requests. See the section above, Resources.