How to Resolve Conflict Using the Bystander, Person, Manager Method

How to resolve conflict? It’s an interesting question. One that often creates frustration.

Conflicts come in many shapes and sizes. Many reasons. Many scenarios.

We can solve a lot of conflict through the way we engage in our conversations, through what’s called conversation framing.

The fact is, when we’re in conflict, the way we phrase what we want to say has a big impact on the way we want it received.

The way we approach a conversation and frame it, has a big impact on how successful we’re going to be at solving a tricky problem between one employee and another.

How to Resolve Conflict: The Common Mistake

The common mistake most managers make, when discussing conflict, is that they start by talking about their views, their frustrations, their demands.

Something like, “Claire, your general attitude at work is not to my standard. I’m getting frustrated with your lack of input and general negativity.” By hitting Claire with this from the off, will lead to, guess what?

More conflict!

The issue with this it’s the opposite to what you or someone else sees. After all, if they agreed with you, there’d be no need to have this conversation, in the first place.

Let’s have a look at a similar approach

A typical situation might be where a manager wants to talk to an employee about their punctuality.

Here’s a quick background: The Manager has issues with Jason’s lack of punctuality in turning up to client’s addresses on time.

“Jason, I’m unhappy that you’re not getting to work on time. I’ve told you many times about this. We need punctuality, and yet you keep turning up late to your clients’ jobs. This has to stop.”

Jason answers, “I am reliable. I always show up when I’m needed and to help get us out of tricky situations. But asking me to just drop everything at the last minute, and then fill my diary up with excessively long drives to clients is too much. Besides I do more than the standard hours each week, and I’m not seeing my family enough.”

As you watch that conversation unfold, you can probably see that an argument could break out.

There are two largely conflicting viewpoints.

That’s because Jason probably feels like he’s being judged or blamed, yet he still works hard and in his eyes, accommodates too much.

The manager started the conversation from her own perspective and has left Jason’s emotions and viewpoint out of it.

How to solve conflict through effective conversations, doesn’t start like this. By telling Jason about how he’s not performing is a natural place to start because its easy.

But it’s just not going to work.

The ‘Bystander-Person-Manager’ Approach

This leads nicely to our framing theory. We simply need to reframe our conversation.

The first thing to do is to stay calm. Keep your head. And go through the ‘BPM’ Model.

How to Resolve Conflict – Step 1: The Bystander

Rather than start with our own perspective of the problem, it’s often useful to first describe the difficulties we’re having.

Kind of like how a third party would see it – It’s the perspective of a bystander. Someone neutral who can observe the problem with all the emotions removed.

In our case of the Manager and Jason – From the Bystander’s perspective, it’s simple.

Manager: “Jason, you and I need to talk. We’ve been having some trouble getting to a workable agreement about your starting times at client jobs.”

Jason: “Yes.”

Notice how that conversation was framed; as if it was being described by someone observing what was going on…

Once we have this non-invasive, common ground, we can move on to the next step.

How to Resolve Conflict – Step 2: The Person

Next, it’s important that we acknowledge how the other person sees the world. We do this to show that we understand them.

Then we can talk about how we feel about it.

The ‘person’ in this step is the person who you have the conflict with.

It could go something like this:

Manager: “You’ve told me that you’re regularly spending more than the standard hours at work, and you just can’t keep putting excessive hours in. This is now getting you down, and impacting on your ability to get to client jobs on time. You also mentioned that these extra hours mean you can’t see your family as much as you’d like.”

Jason: “That’s correct.”

By following this approach, we’ve now built an understanding and seen the world in their eyes. We’ve done this by simply repeating what they told you before.

Notice how this approach is moving us towards an increased chance of an agreed way forward and resolving conflict, without out of control arguments, that result in an impasse?

  • So we have the Bystander Perspective done – Check!
  • And now the Person Perspective completed – Check!

Only after we’ve heard the bystander and the person’s view, do we go to the Manager perspective. That’s you, by the way.

We now simply take them to your viewpoint. The way we see things.

Here’s how it could look.

How to Resolve Conflict – Step 3: The Manager

Manager: “I need to have predictability and reliability to ensure we’re not letting our clients down and that we’re evening out our workload fairly across the team, so other engineers are not overworked.”

Jason: “That’s fair enough.”

We’ve now built up common ground. This ground is based on an objective view point, covering both parties.

Now we’re in a position to discuss possible ideas to help resolve this.

The Finisher

In our example, we could complete our model by saying something like:

Manager: “I’d really like to work this out, so that you can have sufficient flexibility and I don’t need to be burdening all employees with extra work.”

Jason: “Understood.”

After this, you can brainstorm ideas with them to help overcome the problem.

In this situation, it could be ideas like:

  • More efficient planning of diaries, to reduce travel time;
  • Increase skills so all team members can take on all jobs and share the workload out;
  • Flexible working;
  • Another team member to take on increased workload;
  • And others..

Remember, our aim in framing the conversation this way, is to create a shared problem that we can solve together.

And it comes from the ‘Bystander – Person – Manager’ framework, which then leads to solving the problem together.

It’s worth a try. Especially if the last attempt you had really crashed!

There are other subtle framing and reframing techniques you can use to enhance how you communicate and reduce conflict In your approach. Boise State University has a guide to help with how you word conversations.

Additional Questions

Do I need to use this approach all the time?

Of course, we would not need to frame all our conversations. If we could just tell that person what to do and they would willingly do it, then framing in the above way could be overkill.

If there’s conflict, however, then we need to be more tactful with our approach, and frame the conversations, so we are meeting middle ground straight away.

Is Conflict Natural?

Yes, conflict is a perfectly natural process amongst humans. We all have different opinions, values and experiences. The art of managing conflict is to share the problem and agree a way forward.

Conflict can readily be seen when creating new teams, during the storming phase of team development. Creating clarity and common ground is essential to moving forward.