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3 Social-Intelligence Methods for Building Strong Stakeholder Relationships If you want to foster trust, start listening and keeping them laughing.

By Gleb Tsipursky

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Strong relationships with your organization's stakeholders will go a long way in helping you forecast and identify problems, as well as formulate and roll out effective solutions. However, you need to assure them, on a deep level, that you care about them and also have their best interests in mind. To demonstrate this, you need to learn about and use specific social-intelligence skills.

Social intelligence refers to the strategic capacity to evaluate and influence other people's emotions and relationships. Social intelligence-based methods will allow you to break the ice, as well as strengthen the trust, between your organization and your stakeholders. It's often hard to do so due to dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases, but you can use research-based strategies to notice such blind spots and overcome them.

A few months ago, I met with Steve, a coaching client of mine who was, at the time, coming into a maturing healthcare startup as a new professional CEO hired to replace the founder, who stepped back after struggling to manage growth. He was looking to build strong relationships with members of the C-suite by meeting with them one-on-one.

Related: Why You Need Emotional Intelligence to Succeed in Business

Steve approached me for advice because his meetings weren't going well. While he tried to be cordial and gracious, his attempts weren't received warmly and instead were met with defensive and evasive responses. He suspected that the current C-suite was wary of him because he was hired externally, while they had all worked together for a few years since the early days of the startup and would have much preferred to have one of them be put in the leadership position.

He wasn't sure what to do. Should he work on winning their trust or getting rid of the current C-suite and bringing in some fresh faces? I convinced Steve not to jump to conclusions and to keep an open mind about the current executives. First, he needed to try to break the ice, and only after that could he start to really connect and win their trust and evaluate who should be on or off the bus.

I advised him (and advise you) to use the following methods so that he can foster a sincere and welcoming environment when meeting with executives.

Empathetic Listening

Go beyond the surface level when trying to understand your key influencers. This means that when they are communicating with you, you should listen to what they mean and not just what they say. Your goal is empathy, i.e. the skill of understanding what other people feel. Focus not only on their message's content, but also on their tone and body language. By doing so, you will be able to figure out what they mean and what explains their feelings.

One of the best ways to demonstrate empathy while engaging with your key influencers is to show them that you are paying full attention to them and nothing else, through:

  • Nonverbal signals of attention, which includes....
    • Constant eye contact (casual, not intense).
    • Keeping your feet and shoulders pointed to them.
    • Keeping your arms open, if you are sitting.
    • Standing straight and not slouching, if you are standing.
    • Smiling, nodding and using hand gestures at appropriate times.
    • Duchenne smile, not fake smile (includes eyes in smiling).
  • Non-interruptive verbal signals of attention, including saying "uh-huh." "OK," "go on," etc., at appropriate times.

Steve decided to start by meeting with the CFO, Claire, for an informal getting-to-know-you chat. Initially, Claire's responses were guarded, and she did not give a lot of information about herself and the company.

However, by nodding when Claire was speaking, using a Duchenne smile and employing non-interruptive, verbal signals of attention, Steve was able to express warmth and sincerity. Gradually, Claire became more communicative. Steve even found out that they both supported the Dallas Mavericks and used that to establish a personal point of connection.

Echoing and Mirroring

Another way of showing that you are paying full attention is through echoing and mirroring, which includes:

  • Rephrasing the essence of what your key influencer is saying with your own words every one to three minutes. For example:
    • "So what I'm hearing you say is ________. Is that right?"
    • "You're saying that _________. Do I have it correct and complete?"

If you have it right, the person you are talking to will be grateful that you were paying attention. If you don't, they will be grateful that you checked and will correct it.

  • Using their jargon. Notice specific words that your key influencer is using relevant to the issue, and integrate them into your echoing.
  • Mirror in broad terms their tone and posture. For example, if they're speaking formally, do so as well. If they're leaning towards you, do so as well. Just pay attention to their body language and tone and try to match it, but don't try to mirror everything quickly. When done correctly, this will help your key influencers feel connected to you and build trust.

Going back to Steve's meeting with Claire, he decided to keep the conversation flowing by mirroring her tone, which became a lot friendlier after he employed empathetic listening. After a few more minutes of small talk on topics ranging from conferences they attended to peers from the industry that they had both worked with, Steve lightly inquired about any pressing issues that Claire might want to share with him. Given the non-threatening environment that he was able to establish, Claire candidly shared some key issues.

Building Rapport

Finally, you can show your stakeholders that you understand them by building rapport. You need to help them feel that you are on their side and that you are part of their tribe. Without explicitly stating it, signal that you grasp their emotions, goals, incentives, values and obstacles by doing any of the following:

  • Express compassion (sense of caring) towards their emotions.
  • Find points of commonality between your goals and values and theirs.
  • Convey implicitly that you get what their obstacles and incentives are by....
    • Using humor to help bring down defenses.
    • Avoiding making fun of them or what they value.
    • Avoiding sarcasm, as it's too often misunderstood.
    • Lightly making fun of yourself, as you're the safest target.
    • Integrating humor into your messages, both individual and broad.
    • Using funny slides in presentations.
    • Demonstrating diverse types of humor.
Related: Increase Employee Retention By Upping Your Leadership EQ

Circling back to Steve and Claire, one of the issues Claire shared was the challenge of managing an understaffed department. Thankfully, Steve had done his due diligence prior to the meeting and had already noticed that Claire's department could use some more people.

After Claire brought it up, Steve immediately acknowledged the problem and expressed his concern about Claire's challenge. To further demonstrate that he understood what she was going through, he also shared some stories of his time as a struggling COO from years back, when he had to juggle multiple projects with a reduced headcount due to budget constraints. He also highlighted how he understood that startups often didn't spend enough on setting up good systems and processes, and how he was committed to focusing on addressing this issue. Finally, Steve assured Claire that he will immediately look into the issue. They concluded the meeting on warmer terms.

About two weeks after he consulted me, Steve called me with some good news: He got in touch with Claire a week after their talk and was able to present some good options. Claire was happy to further discuss these options with him and, together, they arrived at a solution to the staffing problem.

Steve also informed me that after working with Claire on her department's problem, the rest of the meetings with the C-level executives went a lot better. It appeared that Claire had put in a good word for him with the rest of the C-suite. From then on, Steve was able to have more open, productive conversations with his team members and his transition to being the company's new CEO went smoothly. A little social intelligence goes a long way.

Gleb Tsipursky

CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, is a behavioral scientist who helps executives make the wisest decisions and manage risks in the future of work. He wrote the best-sellers “Never Go With Your Gut,” “The Blindspots Between Us,” and "Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams."

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