conflict and conflict resolution
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Chapter 10: “CONFLICT AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION”
Let’s begin by defining interpersonal conflict as a situation in which two or more people in an interdependent relationship perceive themselves to have different viewpoints or goals, which are incompatible. A couple of aspects of this definition merit fur- ther attention: first, by interdependent relationship, we mean that both or all parties have a stake in continuing the relationship, or that they depend on the other person in some way. Second, note the last part of the definition: perceive themselves to have different viewpoints or goals. This is an important point, because conflict often occurs based on misunderstanding or miscommunication, rather than true differences in goals or viewpoints. So, if we can clarify our goals early, the conflict often diminishes, or even disappears altogether. In doing so, we may also find that goals that seemed incompatible may not necessarily be. We’ll discuss an excellent method to do this later in this chapter. Before we embark on our study of conflict styles and resolution methods, we must first debunk a few common myths about conflict. By doing so, we can reduce some of the tension people often feel when dealing with conflict, and thus put our- selves in a better position to approach it effectively and with realistic expectations. Myth #1: Healthy Relationships Have Little or No Conflict This is simply not true. Numerous studies of friendships as well as intimate relation- ships have demonstrated that virtually all relationships have conflict. Think about it: What are the odds that any two people are going to agree on everything, all the time? It’s a little silly when you look at it that way, isn’t it—especially in our individualistic culture, where we are encouraged to have our own opinions and follow our own paths. Conflicts can be large or small, ranging from issues such as how to spend money or time, to whether there is a right way to load the dishwasher. One study of friendships found that virtually all of the participants acknowledged conflicts in their relationships with each other (Samter & Cupach, 1998). And marriage researcher John Gottman, who is the leading researcher in the United States on the dynamics of happy relationships, has consistently found that there is no relationship between the amount of conflict in a relationship and the overall health of the relationship. Healthy relationships have just as much conflict as unhealthy relationships. The key lies in how we deal with the conflicts, which takes us to our next myth. Myth #2: Conflict Is Always Destructive Looking back at the responses at the beginning of this chapter, it is clear that many people equate conflict with negative outcomes. Fortunately, research has demon- strated that this is untrue also. In fact, conflict can actually be constructive, or help- ful, to a relationship. One interesting study of relationship development studied couples who had just had their “first big fight (FBF)” and found that “survivors” ofthe FBF experienced a number of benefits, including a greater sense of mutual com- mitment to the relationship (Siegert & Stamp, 1994). Dealt with constructively, con- flict also helps us clarify our own needs and values, understand more about the needs and values of the other person, and develop increasingly effective conflict res- olution skills, which can then be applied to other relationships and situations. Sim- ply put, we get better with practice. Most importantly, perhaps, constructive conflict increases trust in a relationship: Each time we get through a difficult situation intact, it strengthens our commitment, increases the sense of “being in this together,” and reminds us of how much we are valued by the other person (Figure 10.1). Myth #3: In Any Conflict, There Can Only Be One Winner This myth may be more applicable in individualist cultures that emphasize compet- ing, rather than collectivist cultures that emphasize harmony and cooperation. When we accept this myth, though, it increases the distance between the persons having the conflict and creates a “win-lose” perspective that can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a sense, it makes us fight harder to defend our own view- point, at the expense of hearing the other person’s viewpoint, so that we “don’t give an inch.” Instead, recognizing that conflict can be resolved in ways that support all parties’ needs or goals can help us reframe the way we perceive conflict and work harder to finding creative ways to make this happen. Overcoming the Myths Recognizing the degree to which we buy into these myths is an essential first step in improving our own patterns of conflict resolution. The study previously discussed of couples who survived their first big fight (FBF) revealed that the biggest differences between the survivors and nonsurvivors were in their perceptions and expectations of conflict. “The survivors generally believed that a successful relationship required a joint effort in problem-solving, some sacrifice from both parties, and the ability and/or willingness to adjust one’s own ways of doing things in order to mesh with the partner’s way of doing things” (Siegert & Stamp, 1994, p. 357). Remember that, just like other myths, these myths gain their power from their place in our unconscious (rather than our conscious awareness). The Dual-Concern Model (The Good and the Bad) Overall, research has found that there are five general conflict styles. These conflict styles are characterized by two distinct fac- tors: assertiveness, or the degree to which we are interested in pursuing our own goals and interests; and cooperativeness, which is the degree to which we are interested in maintaining the relationship or supporting the goals of the other person. Because these two concerns—for self and other—have been found to be at the heart of conflict style, it is known as the dual-concern model (Blake & Mouton, 1964; Pruitt & Rubin, 1986). Our gen- eral interest—low or high—in each of these two distinct goals combines to form our personal conflict style. As you read about each one, keep in mind that there are two important uses for this information. First, try to determine which style tends to be the one you use the most, and what is effective and ineffective in that pattern. Second, recognize that different situations often call for different styles; so, to maximize your ef- fectiveness at dealing with interpersonal conflict, consider how and when you might use each of these different styles. Accommodating Let’s examine each of these conflict styles in more detail. The accommodating style is characterized by a high degree of interest in the relationship, and a low degree of concern about one’s own interests. If this is your style preference, you probably prefer harmony to conflict, want to be liked, and perceive conflict to be damaging to relationships. As a result, when conflict arises, you tend to sacrifice your own needs or goals in order to preserve the relationship—at least, that’s what you think you are doing. Although this style is certainly useful in certain situations, when it is used too much the accommodator often ends up feeling used or unappreciated, which ultimately breeds resentment in a relationship. Clearly, then, frequent accommodating only gives Assertiveness The degree to which we are interested in pursuing our own goals and interests. Cooperativeness The de- gree to which we are in- terested in maintaining the relationship or sup- porting the goals of the other person. Dual-concern model A framework for understand- ing conflict style that is based on the degree of as- sertiveness and cooperative- ness that motivates an individual’s response to conflict. Accommodating Characterized by a high de- gree of interest in the rela- tionship, and a low degree of concern about one’s own interests. one the illusion of preserving the relationship—in the long run, it actually creates an imbalance of power, which is destructive. In what situations can accommodating be an effective strategy? In long-term relationships, whether business or personal, there are times when one person’s desire for something is much stronger than the other person’s competing desire. Imagine, for example, that you and a close friend are getting together this Friday night. You’ve talked about several options, including a movie, going to a huge party you’ve heard about, or just hanging out. You’re somewhat interested in the movie, since you’ve heard it’s pretty good, and you aren’t that much of a partier. Your friend, though, really wants to go to the party. She’s been really stressed out lately with 18 credits at school and extra hours at work, and she thinks that a huge party with lots of people and music will be a good way for her to destress and blow off some steam. In this case, her interest in going to the party is much stronger than your interest in the movie. Also, you can catch the movie another time, and this is supposed to be the party of the year. Assuming that there have been times in the relationship when she accommodated you, it makes good sense to support her needs instead of yours in this situation. This type of reciprocity helps preserve a sense of equality and mutuality in relationships. degree of interest in one’s own goals, and a low degree of interest in the relationship or goals of the other per- son. This is the direct opposite of the accommodating style and is the most confrontational style in the dual-concern model. Domi- nating behaviors may range from aggressive tactics such as threats and insults, to blaming, to such nonverbal tactics as stonewalling, which is withdrawing from the conversation either physically (leaving the room, for example) or psychologically (giving “the silent treatment”). Stonewalling is destructive because by ignor- ing the other person, you are taking his or her power away and essentially communicating that the person is irrelevant. Dominators tend to be goal- oriented, competitive, and perceive conflict as a situation in which only one person can win and others must lose. This set of beliefs drives them to pursue winning without regard to its impact on the relationship or the other person. Given the “win-lose” nature of the dominating style, is there ever a time when it is an effective strategy? Communication expert David DeCenzo (1997) suggests that dominating may have a positive outcome in the workplace if used by a legitimate authority figure when a difficult decision must be made quickly. In this type of situation, perhaps the best solution is one that is unpopular, and the supervisor bears the responsibility for implementing that decision even if it means others won’t like it. In addition, it may be used (for better or worse) in situations where the other person seems likely to give in (Pruitt & Rubin, 1986). The avoiding style is characterized by a low degree of interest in pur- suing one’s own goals, as well as a low degree of interest in supporting the rela- tionship or the other person’s goals. People who routinely avoid conflict may do so because their experiences with conflict have been negative (a behavioral explanation), or because they have a lower biological tolerance for the emotional stress that conflict often carries with it (a personality/emotional stability explana- tion). Either way, when a potential conflict arises, avoiding may take one of several forms.
take one of several forms. One common type of avoiding behavior is to downplay the sig- nificance of the issue. Take, for example, a married couple having a conflict about whether to spank their children: The wife thinks it is okay when necessary, but the husband has strong concerns about its potential long-term impact. If he were an avoider, he might tell himself, “It isn’t that big of a deal—what do psy- chologists really know, anyway? The media just tends to blow everything out of pro- portion.” Alternatively, he might choose a distracting technique, perhaps by going outside or shutting himself into his office with a video game when his wife is going to spank one of the children. He might even deny the actual existence of the conflict, perhaps by abdicating the role of authority figure to his wife and focusing on carry- ing out a different role in the family. All of these strategies enable a person to avoid confronting a conflict head-on. If you are individualistic, you’re probably noticing how wrong this type of be- havior seems—it flies in the face of our cultural messages about asserting our- selves. Surprisingly, though, research on the long-term effects of an avoiding pattern are mixed. On one hand, there is a well-documented connection between suppression of negative emotions and decreased immune-system activity. In other words, people who do not express their negative emotions may suffer health con- sequences (Petrie, Booth, & Pennebaker, 1998). So, if avoiders are suppressing their negative emotions, this may be a negative effect. We can’t be sure, though, whether avoiders are suppressing their negative emo- tions about the conflict, or actually avoiding the negative emotions by avoiding the conflict. If that is the case, their conflict style may be health-promoting. Marriage re- searcher John Gottman, for example, has discovered that partners who withdraw from conflict often do so as a reaction to a rapidly rising blood pressure—essentially, they are calming themselves down by withdrawing. One of his additional findings is that some happily married couples deal with conflict via avoidance, and if both part- ners exhibit this style, it can work for them. Other psychologists feel compelled to point out the long-term risks of avoidance in a relationship. By never confronting conflict, you never build your conflict reso- lution skills and, eventually, the odds are you’ll encounter a conflict that can’t be dealt with effectively by avoidance. At that point, the avoider has much less chance of getting through the conflict effectively than someone with more experience in confronting conflict. Also, remember the benefits of constructive conflict resolution: increased awareness of your own goals and feelings, increased awareness of your partner’s goals and feelings, and an increased sense of mutuality and commitment in the relationship. Avoiders miss these relationship-sustaining benefits. There may, however, be certain situations in which avoiding is an effective strat- egy. Perhaps the benefit of engaging in the conflict is minimal—for example, if it is a temporary issue, or one that won’t have much of an impact on you or your needs. Conversely, the risk of engaging in the conflict may be too high, such as if your con- flict is with your boss at work and others who have had conflict with her have been fired. If you need your job and can deal with the consequences, sometimes avoidance is a reasonable choice. Compromising The fourth conflict style is the compromising style, characterized by a moderate degree of interest in one’s own goals, and an equally moderate degree of interest in the relation- ship and/or goals of the other person. Compromisers value har- mony as well as individual satisfaction and pursue solutions that are agreeable to both parties. Typically, these solutions take the form of “meeting in the middle,” or each person getting part of what they want, but giving up a little something as well in the interest of a mutually satisfactory out- come. The obvious advantage of this style is that each party gains some satisfaction; the disadvantage is that each also has to make some sacrifice. Examples of compromise abound. For example, imagine you and friend are going to dinner: You want Mexican food, but your friend wants something Italian. Instead of going to a restaurant specializing in either Mexican food or Italian food, you might choose a “bistro” or “bar and grill” type of restaurant that has some kind of quesadilla or burrito on the menu, but also a pasta dish like fettucine. The sacrifice is that it might not offer as many choices or be as authentic as a restau- rant that specializes in one type of food, but the benefit is that you both get some- thing fairly close to what you wanted. Or consider the roommates who are having a conflict about getting a pet. One really wants a cat or small dog, but the other is adamantly opposed to the idea. A compromise might involve getting a pet, but ei- ther keeping it in the pet-lover’s room or outside so that the other roommate doesn’t have to deal with it. This solution gives each of them part of what they want, but also requires that they make some sacrifice for the sake of equality. The required sacrifice is the element of compromise that keeps it from being the best overall conflict style. There is a better option, which we’ll discuss in a moment. Overall, though, compromising is a conflict style that values equality in a relation- ship, and it can be an effective solution in certain situations. When time is short and a solution must be reached, compromise is often the best we can do. Also, if the is- sue isn’t one that goes to the core of the relationship or that repeatedly surfaces in the relationship, compromise is often just fine. Integrating The final conflict style in the dual-process model is the integrating style, in which a person has a strong interest in pursuing their own goals, and an equally strong interest in supporting the relationship and/or the goals of the other person. Integrating goes beyond compromising, in that the goal of integrating is for each person to get all of what they want, without the sacrifice that comes with compromise. This may sound like an awfully high standard, and it definitely requires more time and effort than compromise. It tends to be motivated by the belief that conflict is normal, healthy, and necessary for per- sonal growth as well as relationship development and satisfaction. This positive view of conflict fuels integrators’ response to conflict: When they encounter it, they openly disclose their viewpoints, listen carefully to oth- ers’ viewpoints, and put a great deal of effort into developing a creative solution that meets both parties’ needs completely (Pruitt & Carnevale, 1993). Are you skeptical? If you are, you are probably not alone. True integration re- quires a well-developed set of communication and conflict resolution skills, which many people lack, as well as a high level of creative thinking (see Figure 10.2). However, remember that you have already begun to work toward developing many of these skills, including active listening and principles of effective verbal and nonverbal communication. You’ve also learned many of the psychological concepts that influence people’s behavior. A little later in this chapter, we will ex- plain how these principles and concepts can be combined into something called Integrating Characterized by a strong interest in pur- suing one’s own goals, and an equally strong interest in supporting the relationship and/or the goals of the other person. the “win-win” conflict resolution method, which is a technique geared specifically toward collaborative solutions to conflict. At that point, you’ll have the basic tools necessary to try integration in your own life. So, given what you’ve learned al- ready, integration isn’t out of reach. Just so we have a true understanding of how integration differs from compro- mise, let’s go back to the example above of the roommates with the conflict about getting a pet. If the issue were really important to their relationship and they had the time and skills to do it, they could try an integrated approach. To do this, they’d each have to openly talk about their needs as well as their concerns, and actively lis- ten to each other. As they do this, they might discover that what is motivating one or both of them is something different from what they originally thought. For ex- ample, maybe the roommate who wants a pet realizes (as she talks about why she wants a pet) that what’s really motivating her is her awareness of the many pets who are strays or unwanted, and so her first thought was to adopt one from the lo- cal humane society. Her primary goal, then, was to help animals rather than to share her life with one. With this new understanding, she might realize that she could do more good by volunteering at the humane society, rather than adopting a single pet. Alternatively, perhaps the roommate who didn’t want a pet realized (again, as they talked openly about their viewpoints) that her strong opposition was based in her early experiences: She remembered living next door to a family who had several dogs and cats, and their house always smelled bad. Consequently, she never got interested in animals and has pretty much avoided them. If this were the case, she might decide that her opposition is really unfounded, because it was based on very limited experience. She might be willing to go the humane society, or to a friend’s house who has a pet, hang out for a while, and see whether it might be something she could enjoy. Either of these possible solutions goes beyond compromise to a solution that actually meets the needs of both partners without giving up anything important. As you can see, though, it doesn’t happen quickly or in an obvious way. Rather, it takes open, honest, and sometimes extensive conversation to wade through the preconceptions and get to the heart of the matter, which often turns out to be a different issue from what you originally thought. Is integration always the best choice? No. Because it takes a significant amount of time and effort, it should probably be reserved for the more important and long-lasting issues in a personal or work relationship. Also, it only works when both parties are interested in and willing to employ the integrated style; one person cannot accomplish it alone. For a review of these five conflict styles. Passive-Aggressive Behavior (The Ugly) As you can see, the five interpersonal conflict styles included in the dual-concern model all have potential advantages and disadvantages—they can be good or bad, depending on the situation. There is one additional approach to conflict, though, that never has positive outcomes. It is known as passive-aggressive behavior, and it is in a category all its own. Passive-aggressive behavior is exhibited when a person acts passive on the outside, but secretly commits some type of aggression against the other person. In other words, the passive-aggressive person pretends that every- thing is just fine, but while he is doing so, he is also doing some- thing intended to punish the other person in a way that will (a) really make the person feel it, but (b) not have a clue as to where it came from. The passive-aggressive person thus is able to main- tain the appearance of being nice, but take out his anger on whomever he perceives is responsible for it. For example, if a passive-aggressive person has a problem Passive-aggressive behavior When a person acts passive on the outside, but secretly commits some type of ag- gression against the other person. with someone at work, he might continue to act friendly toward the person (the passive part of the pattern), but say unkind things about the person behind his back, or undermine him in some other way (the aggressive part of the pattern). Another example might be in a personal relationship: One roommate gets mad at another, perhaps because she thinks the roommate isn’t doing his share of the chores. Rather than talk to the roommate about it directly, the passive-aggressive person pretends everything is fine, but “accidentally” forgets to give her roommate an important phone message about a job interview (and then pretends to be so sorry and upset about it when the roommate finds out the job went to someone else). In this case, she avoids confrontation by pretending everything is fine, but does her best to make the roommate “pay” for his transgressions. Passive-aggressive behavior neither solves problems NOR maintains relationships. The passive-aggressive person might feel better in the short term, but what she doesn’t realize is that the other person often has no idea what is being done behind his back, so it doesn’t solve anything at all—the problem is bound to continue unless and until it is brought out into the open. What causes this destructive behavior pattern? This mistake may be the result of the unrealistic expectation that “a real friend should know what is wrong with- out me having to say what it is.” Given all that we’ve learned about individual and cultural differences in personality, emotions, and perceptions, it is clear that this expectation is completely unrealistic! Another contributor to passive-aggressive behavior may be gender-role expectations placed on women in Western culture: Women are traditionally supposed to be “nice,” a behavioral expectation that may seem incompatible with expressing complaints or concerns. Passive-aggressive be- havior may be a response to this dilemma. Remember, though, that to effectively communicate and resolve conflicts in relationships, we must express complaints or concerns diplomatically and responsibly through I-language. Passive-aggressive behavior doesn’t fit neatly into the dual-concern model of conflict. It could be classified as dominating or avoiding, since both of those styles Accommodating Dominating Avoiding Compromising Integrating The accommodating roommate gives into the other one; for example, if the accommodator is the pet-lover, she gives up the idea of a pet to keep conflict out of the relationship. The dominating roommate aggressively pursues her goal and doesn’t give an inch to the other roommate; if the dominator is the pet-lover, she insists on getting a pet and assumes that the roommate will just deal with it. This might include efforts to convince the roommate why a pet is a good idea, and “bulldozing” until she gets her way. When the roommates realize they have a potential conflict on their hands, they ignore it. If the avoider is the roommate who doesn’t want the pet, she keeps quiet about it and hopes it’s just a passing whim. If a pet does arrive on the scene, she just avoids it or spends less time at home. The pet-lover gets a pet and keeps it out of the space where the anti-pet roommate is; or doesn’t get a pet but sometimes keeps foster pets. The roommates discuss the issue to determine what the underlying goals are for each party, and re-conceptualize the conflict with the new information. Then one roommate volunteers at the humane society to get “hands-on” pet time, or the other roommate realizes she’s open to trying something new. Personality and Conflict Style Studies that have inquired into relationships between personality and conflict style have relied primarily on the Big Five personality model as their unit of measurement. As you will recall from Chapter 3, the Big Five personality theory asserts that our personality can be explained by our unique combination of five major traits. Extraversion is the degree to which we enjoy and gain energy from social interaction. Neuroticism refers to a greater tendency to experience negative emotions. Agreeableness is just what it sounds like: the tendency to go with the flow and cooperate with others. Conscientious people are reliable, dependable, and careful to follow through on commitments. Finally, openness to experience is char- acterized by a high level of interest in trying new things and preferring change to stability. The degree to which we are high, moderate, or low on each of these traits forms our personality (McCrae & Costa, 1987). One interesting study of the relationship between the Big Five traits and conflict style found a number of significant differences (Moberg, 2001). Compromisers were characterized by higher agreeableness, higher openness to experience, and higher neuroticism than persons with other conflict styles. Integrators had higher levels of extraversion, higher levels of conscientiousness, greater openness to experience, and less neuroticism than other groups. Avoiders had almost the opposite pattern: They reported lower extraversion, lower conscientiousness, and higher neuroticism. And, predictably, dominators were characterized by low agreeableness. In discussing these results, Moberg suggested that extraverts were more likely to enjoy being assertive, which could increase their comfort level in pursuing the challenging integrated style of conflict resolution, and also explain why avoiders were lower on extraversion than other groups. In addition, neuroticism was thought to foster a greater perceived sense of vulnerability, which in turn might make compromise or avoidance seem more appealing than dominating or integrating. Ethnicity and Conflict Style The issue of how conflict style might be influenced by various dimensions of culture has revealed a number of interesting findings in a relatively short period of time. One of the earliest findings noted that the dual- concern model is a product of Western culture, and that it may need a few modi- fications to be reliably applied to other cultures. The primary question raised had to do with the meaning of the conflict styles: Accommodating and avoiding tend to have negative connotations in Western culture, but we can’t assume that to be true in other cultures. Think about it: In Western culture, we value assertiveness and speaking our mind, which is why we tend to frown on accommodating and avoiding since they are characterized by not speaking one’s mind. This reflects an individualistic value system. What about collectivistic cultures, which place greater value on intergroup relations and harmony? This question was first addressed by cross-cultural researcher Stella Ting- Toomey, who discovered that both Asian and Latino groups perceive accommo- dating and avoiding as positive choices, because they reduce friction and keep relations peaceful. African Americans also used avoiding more than European Americans (Ting-Toomey, Yee-Jung, Shapiro, Garcia, & Oetzel, 2000). Another study (Gabrielidis, Stephan, Ybarra, Pearson, & Villareal, 1997) revealed a similar pattern with Brazilians and Mexicans. This study found that in these countries, avoidance of conflict reflected a high degree of concern for others (rather than the low degree postulated by the dual-concern model). This is important to keep in mind as we interact with individuals of various ethnicities, so we correctly inter- pret their intentions and the meaning of their conflict styles. Individualism–Collectivism and Conflict Style The next step of research into cul- ture and conflict styles noted that, although broad generalizations based on nation- ality are useful, they present the danger of stereotyping. In other words, when we learn, for example, that Brazilians use avoidance when they care about the other person, this is useful in a general sense, but we can’t assume that every Brazilian will fit this pattern. Instead, we might improve our accuracy by measuring research participants’ own individual level of, say, individualism and collectivism, rather than just categorizing them based on their nationality. This is precisely the approach. taken by a recent study that assessed participants from 31 countries (Cai & Fink, 2002). Surprisingly, individualists were found to use the avoiding style more than collectivists. In addition, collectivists preferred compromising and integrating more than individualists, which makes sense in light of the concern for others reflected in these conflict styles. On a side note, regardless of cultural orientation, integration was the most preferred conflict style across the board, followed by accommodating and avoiding. Compromising and dominating were least preferred overall. Identity and Conflict Style An even more precise approach was taken by a large, well-designed study that hypothesized that the individualism–collectivism dimension was too narrow to really pinpoint the differences among various cul- tures (Ting-Toomey, Oetzel, & Yee-Jung, 2001). The researchers proposed that, instead of seeing IC as one continuum (as we did in Chapter 1), it was more ac- curately conceptualized as two: one continuum for individualism, and a separate one for collectivism. The reasoning is that, if seen as a single dimension, then as one gets higher on individualism (valuing the self), one must commensurately get lower on collectivism (valuing others). These researchers argued that this was a false assumption. In- stead, it seems to make sense that a person can value both rel- atively highly, or even both relatively little. This model creates a total of four different identities relating to individualism– collectivism (see Figure 10.4). These identities are called self-construals, because they pertain to the way we perceive, or construe, our self. As you can see from Figure 10.4, a person who has high collectivistic values but low individualistic values would be said to have an interdependent self- construal. Conversely, a person with high individualistic val- ues but low collectivistic values would have an independent self-construal. These two identities are similar to the concepts of individualism/collectivism that we’ve already studied. The other two identities are the new concepts. Some people have both high individualistic values and high collectivistic values: They value pursuing their own goals, but place an equally high value on connection to their social group. This is known as a biconstrual identity. Finally, a person could have little sense of individual- ity, as well as little sense of connection to the larger group. This is called the ambivalent identity. In examining whether these four types of self-construals were related to conflict style, researchers noted several major findings. First, independents, interdependents, and biconstruals all used integrating and compromising more than ambivalents. Also, biconstruals were found to use a wider variety of conflict styles than any other identity group. This makes sense, given their strong connection with both self-goals and relationship goals. At the other extreme, ambivalents had a very narrow range of styles. In fact, they tended to use the passive-aggressive style more than any other group. Researchers suggested this may be the result of a less well-defined identity: If you don’t feel a sense of individuality or a sense of connection to others, you might feel less secure, and consequently feel it necessary to use passive-aggressive conflict behaviors rather than the more solution-focused choices. Interdependent self- construal High collectivis- tic values but low individualistic values. Independent self-construal High individualistic values but low collectivistic values. Biconstrual identity Value pursuing their own goals, but place an equally high value on connection to their social group. Ambivalent identity Little sense of individuality, as well as little sense of connection to the larger group. Culture and Conflict Style: The Bottom Line The research findings presented here are indeed complicated. But stay with it; in our increasingly multicultural world, the reality is that we are going to be inter- acting with a wide variety of people who will have different cultural backgrounds and identities. The more information we have about how culture and identity in- fluences conflict style and other communication behaviors, the better our chances of getting along well and interacting effectively with our diverse communities. Reducing Defensiveness in Others When I ask my students, “How many of you have problems with defensiveness in your relationships—either you are frequently defensive, your partner is, or you both are?” at least 80% of the class raise their hand. Defensive- ness is extremely destructive to relationships—when one per- son gets defensive, it’s easy to lash out or withdraw, either of which is likely to put the other person on the defensive, and then off you go into what feels like the land of no return! This pattern has been termed a defensive spiral: One negative com- ment tends to be reciprocated, then each provokes another, getting worse as you go along, and the downward spiral that is created is very difficult to turn around (Wilmot, 1987). Fortunately, some excellent techniques have been developed specifically to reduce defensiveness, both in others and in ourselves. Reducing defensiveness in others is an area of research led by communication expert Jack Gibb (1961), who spent a number of years observing communication in groups to determine which types of comments promoted defensiveness and which did not. Gibb found that the defense-arousing types of comments could be summarized into six categories. He also identified ways that each type of com- ment could be rephrased to send a more supportive (less defense-arousing) mes- sage. Let’s examine each of these categories and consider which tend to be the biggest problems for each of us. Defensive spiral One neg- ative comment tends to be reciprocated, then each provokes another. Evaluation vs. Description The first defense-provoking category is when we use language that evaluates or judges another person. We talked about this in Chapter 9: Evaluative language is also known as you-language. Examples are statements such as, “You’re such a penny-pincher,” “You need to take better care of yourself,” or “That was a dumb thing to do.” This type of message implies that something is wrong with the other person, which makes him or her feel less safe and ultimately less trusting in that relationship. The remedy for evaluation is description. Does this remind you of anything you learned in the last chapter? Yes—I-language. As you recall, an essential component of a good I-statement is a fact-based, nonjudgmental description of the other person’s be- havior. The you-statements in the last paragraph, for example, could be revised into these more descriptive statements: “I noticed that you flinched when the waiter brought the check at dinner last night”; “I’m worried that you’ve been eating fast food every day lately”; or “I saw the dent in your new car where you ran into that bus.” All of these statements simply acknowledge a fact by de- scribing it; in many cases, you’d follow up the statement with other components of I-language, like how you felt about it and/or why you’re concerned. Evaluation Language which evaluates or judges another person. Description Fact-based, nonjudgmental description of the other person’s behavior. Certainty vs. Provisionalism Gibb’s second category describes a situation in which a person implies that she is “the last word” on a subject, that her opinion is the only important one, or that she’s made up her mind based on what she already knows and nothing you can say will change it. This is what Gibb called certainty, and as you know if you’ve been on the receiving end of this type of statement, it tends to create defensiveness in the recipient. Imagine, for ex- ample, that you’re looking for your first job. You are going to apply at a cool new store in the mall. You’re telling your friend about it, and your friend says, “They’re not going to hire anyone without retail experience—why are you wasting your time?” Essentially, your friend sends a message that he is the last word on the sub- ject, and any thoughts you have about the issue are irrelevant. Certainty messages can be replaced by provisional ones, which instead imply that there may be more to the situation than you know, or acknowledge that not all situations are the same. Really, isn’t that almost always the case? In the previous example, your friend could instead say, “Wow—good for you! Are you concerned that they’ll want someone with experience, or did the ad say they were willing to train?” This message retains its honesty by asking about the experience compo- nent, but comes across as more supportive by recognizing that experience may not be a requirement in this situation. Control vs. Problem Orientation The third category tends to surface in situations where we are working with another person or people in some type of collaborative effort. It might be a school or work project, dividing up the household chores with roommates, or figuring out how you and your partner are going to afford the tuition increase at school. The defense-arousing approach basically tells the other person what to do, or sends a controlling message in some other way. For example, in a school project, a controller might say, “I’ll do the first part; Ted, you do the graphics; and Misha, you write the last section.” The speaker might feel good about this, but the other two people probably won’t like it much. The defense-reducing alternative is to take a collaborative, problem-focused approach (a problem orientation). Instead of sending a message that “I’m the smartest, so I’ll make the deci- sions!” it signals respect for others and places a value on equality. For the school project, a person might say, “How do we want to divide this up? I’m terrible at graphics, so that would be my last choice—what parts are you guys interested or not interested in?” This is much more likely to keep relations positive in the group. Strategy vs. Spontaneity The defense-arousing behavior called strategy refers to communicating in a way that is meant to manip- ulate the other person, or influence him or her indirectly to do or say something. It also refers to people who seem to have “hidden agen- das”—they’re after something but they aren’t being completely honest about it. This promotes defensiveness because it goes right to the heart of trust: In individualistic cultures, we rely on directness as a signal of trust, so if some- one isn’t direct, it seems as if they have something to hide, which increases suspicion and puts a person on the defensive. This category is a little more difficult to recognize than the other categories are. In face-to-face situations, strategy is often more apparent in the nonverbal element of communication, or in what a person doesn’t say, than in the actual words. It also is more likely to show up in a pattern over time with a particular person, rather than in one single interaction. For example, Cathy, one of my students, talked about her sister’s use of strategy. The sister routinely asked Cathy how she was doing in school, what she was doing in her spare time, and so forth, and gave the impression that she was genuinely interested. Cathy responded by revealing quite a bit to her sister over time. Later, she found out that her sister was using some of what she learned against her when she talked to their parents. When Cathy found out, she felt really be- trayed, and she didn’t trust her sister much after that. There are other, shorter-term examples. A person who needs help moving might ask a friend, “Hey, do you still have that nice truck?” Then, when she says yes, the strategic communicator follows up with, “Can I borrow it to move some stuff this weekend?” Or have you ever had someone say to you, “If I asked you a personal question, would you answer it honestly?” This is almost guaranteed to make the listener a little wary! Instead, Gibb recommends a more direct, or what he calls spontaneous approach. You could replace the first example with, “I’m moving this weekend—could I possibly borrow your truck for some of the big stuff?” As for the second example, if it’s a sensitive issue, it’s a sensitive issue, and beating around the bush is probably only going to make it worse. Try to wait for the right time and place, then just ask, “Could we talk about the previous rela- tionship you were in?” Neutrality vs. Empathy This category involves communicating genuine interest in the other person. When a person seems disinterested, Gibb calls it neutrality. Neutrality, or apparent lack of concern or feeling, sends a mes- sage that the other person is unimportant, which creates a dis- confirming or defensive climate. Take, for example, the daughter who is talking to her mom about a fight she had with her boyfriend. As she is talking, her mom doesn’t respond much, ei- ther verbally or nonverbally. Eventually Mom shrugs and says matter-of-factly, “I told you not to get involved with him; you aren’t right for each other.” This response is likely to leave the daughter feeling misunderstood, and less likely to trust her mom with her feelings in the future. As we learned in Chapter 4, empathy is when we imagine ourselves in the other person’s position and how they might be feeling. Research has demon- strated that empathy is an important factor in building healthy relationships. Sev- eral of the listening responses we learned in Chapter 8 could be used to do this. A supportive response by the mother might be, “I’m so sorry you’re having prob- lems, honey.” Even better would be a paraphrasing response, such as, “You sound more upset than I’ve heard you in a long time; are you worried that this is the end Neutrality Apparent lack of concern or feeling, sending a message that the other person is unimportant. Superiority vs. Equality The final category is based on messages that signal superiority, or convey that the speaker is smarter, knows more, or is better in some other way than the listener. This promotes feelings of judgment and unworthiness in the other person in a relation- Superiority Defense- ship, or at the very least resentment. In any case, it creates a de- arousing message that fensive climate. Take, for example, Damon, the youngest boy in conveys that the speaker is a family, whose three older brothers have all excelled at base- smarter, knows more, or is ball. Damon went out for baseball this year, but didn’t make the better in some other way team. When he told his older brother, his older brother said, than the listener. “Dude, what do you mean you didn’t make the team? Baseball runs in the family—what’s your problem?” Ouch! Damon was already feeling down about the situation, and now he feels worse. Will he ever be as good as his brothers, he wonders? A more supportive re- sponse would have been, “That’s a total bummer—I feel for you. I remember when I went out for soccer but didn’t make it. It’s not the end of the world, though—different people are good at different things—you’ll find something that works for you.” This message is geared toward demonstrating to Damon that they’re all equal—they aren’t the same, they may have different strengths and weaknesses, but no one’s strength is any more valuable than another’s. Defense-Arousing Communication: The Bottom Line As you learned about six common ways we use language that raise defensiveness in others, did you notice a common theme among them? Each defense-arousing category seems to create an imbalance in the relationship—one that places the speaker in power and consequently disempowers the receiver. Maintaining a bal- ance of power is critical in personal relationships, because it helps both partners feel a sense of equity and equal value in the relationship. Thus, learning to replace our own patterns of defense-arousing communication with more supportive al- ternatives will help us develop and strengthen our close relationships. But what about relationships where there is a clear power differential, such as in the workplace, or other relationships where there is a mutually accepted au- thority figure? Is it still important to use supportive communication? The answer is yes. In situations where one person has authority over another, the subordinate is usually quite aware of this power differential. Being constantly reminded of it via defense-arousing, power-flexing communication is only going to create re- sentment. Using supportive alternatives, on the other hand, will make the subor- dinate feel more valued and increase his or her respect for the authority figure. It’s a win-win solution. Table 10.3 summarizes these six categories of defense-arousing communication. Turn now to Activity 10.3 to practice identifying defense-arousing messages and replacing them with more supportive alternatives. Reducing Our Own Defensiveness Now that we’ve learned how we can reduce defensiveness in others, let’s turn our attention to our own patterns of defensive communication. When a person says something to you that sounds critical, insulting, or diminishing, do you tend to re- spond defensively? If so, you are not alone. These types of comments, especially when they come from someone we value, can cut right to the core of our self- image. (Remember the sociometer theory of self-esteem from Chapter 2?) And when our self-image is threatened, it is quite natural to defend it. So, even though defensiveness is a natural response, unfortunately it is not a productive one. As we noted earlier, once we respond defensively, it tends to provoke a reciprocal type of comment, and the downward spiral begins. What can we do about it? Research in this area has identified a number of nondefensive response-types, which are useful in responding to criticism with- out beginning the downward spiral. The type we choose depends on the specifics of the situation. First, is the criticism justified? As much as we may hate to admit it, sometimes criticism is right on target, and in these cases, the best thing we can do is just to accept it and agree. In other situations, we may disagree with the criticism, but it is still possible to respond nondefensively. Finally, often criticism doesn’t follow the rules of clear communication we’ve been learning about in this book—after all, many of the people we talk with will not have taken this class! As a result, the criticism may use you-language or be vague. When this happens, we have several choices in how we respond. Let’s examine these op- tions in more detail. If the Criticism Is Accurate This may be the hardest situation to deal with, so let’s talk about it first and get it over with. When someone criticizes you about something you know to be true, the easiest way to deal with it is just to agree. This may seem like a difficult proposition, but try it—it gets much easier with practice! Imagine that you are working on a class assignment with a partner from the class; each of you is responsible for half the work. Two days before the project is due, your partner e-mails you her part of the project. You’ve agreed to put it to- gether with yours, make sure everything looks nice, and print out the final prod- uct. On the morning of the day the project is due, you sit down to do all this, but just as you finish, your computer crashes—and you hadn’t saved the project yet. You realize that there’s no way you can recreate everything before the deadline, so you’re going to get marked down for being late. When you call your partner to let her know, she gets really upset and says, “Why did you wait until the last minute? I gave you my part two days ago! Your irresponsibility is going to screw up my grade!” Clearly, your friend is using you-language and violating several of Gibb’s principles, but responding defensively is only going to make things worse. Instead, if you just agree and admit that you made a mistake, it will diffuse the tension immediately. “You’re right; I shouldn’t have waited until the last minute. I’m really sorry.” If the Criticism Isn’t Accurate This is a more difficult situation, but if you dis- agree with the criticism, sometimes saying so just builds tension. Granted, in some relationships, disagreeing is a mutually acceptable option, and in those relation- ships you may be able to disagree without sounding defensive. In many relation- ships, though, disagreeing is interpreted as an affront. In that case, how can you honestly respond to the critic without sounding defensive? By recognizing how they might have come to see it the way they do. Jesse did a nice job with this type of response when his girlfriend told him, “You think too much.” He replied, “I have been spending a lot of time thinking lately; this decision I have to make about where to go to school next year feels like a really important thing.” By responding this way, he’s acknowledging that he has been thinking a lot; in his mind, though, it isn’t too much, since he’s making a big decision. By saying this to her in a sincere and even tone of voice, he’s validating her perception without giving up his own voice. If the Criticism Isn’t Clear Many times, someone voicing criticism will use rela- tive or static language. As you recall from Chapter 9, these are both types of ab- stract language that are not specific enough to convey a message that is likely to be interpreted accurately. In these cases, you have three choices. The simplest choice is to ask for clarification. In Jesse’s example, if he didn’t know what his girlfriend was talking about, he could ask. “What are you seeing that makes you think that?” Of course, this needs to be done in a nondefensive tone of voice and with other congruent nonverbal behaviors. Remember how important it is for our nonverbal signals to support our words, rather than contradict them. Shon offers an additional example. When his roommate said, “I sure wish you would help me around the house more,” he asked for clarification by responding, “Could you please be more specific about what it is that you’d like me to help you with?” And it worked—she smiled and said, “It’d be great if you’d do the laundry!” Either way, asking the critic to specify exactly what he or she means is a very di- rect way of getting clarification. The only potential barrier to effective use of this strategy is the nonverbal component. Keep in mind that the critic has a clear idea of what he wants, but is probably completely unaware of how vague his communica- tion really is. So, in asking what he means, it’s important to be sincere with your words and your nonverbal signals, so he doesn’t misinterpret you as being sarcastic. Because of the risk sometimes involved in asking for clarification, often a better option is to guess about the specifics—if you think your guess has a decent chance of be- ing correct. In Shon’s example, if he remembered his roommate complaining about his failure to do the laundry in the past, he might have been better off saying, “Are you wanting me to do the laundry, or is it something else?” Fortunately, he and his room- mate had a pretty supportive communication climate already, so there was little risk of her getting defensive when he asked (instead of guessing) about her specific concern. Jennifer’s example was when her dad said to her, “You’ve been too loud lately!” She had a feeling he was talking about the night before, when she had some friends over, so this is what she said: “When you say I’ve been too loud lately, is it because I had some people over last night and we distracted you from your work?” By guess- ing about the specifics (when you can), you’re showing a real effort to understand what the other person means, or trying to empathize, which as we know builds trust. A third, related option is to find out exactly what the person does want from you. In other words, what do they want you to do about it? In Jennifer’s case, she could say, “I did have friends over last night, Dad—do you have any ideas about what we could do to keep from distracting you when I have friends over on a night that you’re work- ing?” This signals that she shares his concern and is open to suggestion. Rob, another student, was able to use this response style at work, when his boss said, “You’re doing that all wrong!” He simply replied, “Can you show me how you’d like me to do it?” Of course, this sounds so simple. In reality, though, it can be difficult—at first, anyway. As mentioned earlier, criticism often puts us on the defensive, and if we’re accustomed to responding defensively, it might seem impossible to change that. But remember what we learned about operant conditioning and positive reinforcement in Chapter 3? That principle tells us that we learn to do things faster and more re- peatedly when we get positive reinforcement for them. Learning these nondefen- sive response styles is a great example of positive reinforcement in action: The first time you use one (assuming it comes out right), you will be truly amazed at how well it works. If things are tense when the critic says what she says, your nondefen- sive response will be like throwing a pitcher of water on a piece of paper that has caught fire—it will extinguish the blaze immediately! It takes all the hostility away. Add to this the fact that the other person probably isn’t enjoying the tension any more than you are, so he’ll be relieved and grateful that you took it so well. These two “reinforcements” will make it so much easier to respond nondefensively the next time, and pretty soon nondefensive responses will be your norm. Step One: Identify the Problem Win-win problem solving, or the integrative approach, begins with some honest thinking about what the problem really is. This is something you should do on your own, before bringing up the issue to the other person in the conflict. Be care- ful not to assume that you already know what the problem is and don’t need this step. Why not? Because, by the time an issue gets to the point where it’s impor- tant enough to call for an integrative solution, chances are your emotions have gotten involved and may even be pretty strong. When this happens, as we learned in Chapter 4, our strong emotions can skew our perception of the issue, and it’s critical to have a clear and accurate picture of what the issue really is in order to truly solve it. So, to clarify the crux of the issue for yourself, spend some time thinking about what you need that you aren’t getting in this situation. It can even be use- ful to try putting it into an I-statement, to be sure you are (a) describing the cur- rent status or situation clearly and factually; (b) identifying the emotional impact it is having on you; and (c) able to state the consequences the situation has for you in a manner that takes responsibility for your thoughts and feelings, rather than blaming them on the other person. This I-statement will also be useful in the next step. Step Two: Set a Time and Place to Discuss the Issue Once you’ve accurately identified what the problem is for you and how it’s affect- ing you, it’s time to let the other person know, give him or her a chance to have some thinking time about it, and set up a time to try the integrative method. Tim- ing is critical here—don’t ambush the other person with it! Choose a moment to bring up the issue when neither of you is stressed or in a hurry to get somewhere. You can use the I-statement you crafted in Step One, and/or incorporate whichever of Gibb’s categories of non–defense-arousing communication seem ap- propriate. Let the other person know you’ve been thinking a lot about it, have some ideas, and would like to set up a time that works for you both to talk about it and try to reach a win-win solution. This gives him some time to prepare him- self—which builds a sense of equality and trust, because you’ve had some time to think about it already—and reinforces that equality through the mutual choice of a good time and place. As you make the date, be sure not to sabotage yourselves by trying to squeeze it into a short time period; choose a time when neither of you has anything you must do for an hour or two. If you end up with extra time, you can just hang out and celebrate your success! Also, think about your environment. Choose a place where you won’t be distracted by other people or too much noise from your sur- roundings. That way, you’ll be able to concentrate on what each of you is saying, which will increase the chances of a successful outcome. One last tip: If it is a complex issue, as is often the case, consider suggesting that it is okay for either of you to bring some notes to the discussion. That may sound a little dorky, but think about it: You probably have a lot riding on the out- come, so why not do everything you can to increase the chances of success? Be- cause you might feel a little uncomfortable, at least early on, it might help to have written down the way you want to present some things. That will help keep you both on track, and also help keep you from using defense-arousing types of communication. Step Three: Exchange Viewpoints When the time comes for your discussion, the best way to start out is for each of you—one at a time—to describe your viewpoint. Doing it one at a time will help keep you from arguing or getting derailed. If you like, you can flip a coin to decide who goes first; or you can start out by describing what the issue is for you. (By go- ing first, you can use your communication skills to set a positive tone for your dis- cussion.) This will probably build on the I-statement you came up with earlier; typically, issues that need a win-win solution are too complex to fit neatly into one simple I-statement. Ideally, you’ll have thought about the best ways to state all this to your partner, and maybe even have some notes to guide you. Include the facts of the situation, how you feel about it, and the consequences it has for you. If you have additional concerns or perceptions you want to check, you can include those as well, as long as you present them as the perceptions they are rather than fact. The goal here is to get all aspects of your concern and unmet needs on the table, and to get to a point where you both feel as though your part- ner truly understands your viewpoint. While you are describing the situation, work toward observing your partner’s responses, both verbal and nonverbal. Hopefully, by this time, you’ll have shared some of what you’ve learned about effective listening responses, and he will use them to clarify his understanding of what you’re saying. If not, help him out by ask- ing him what seems to make sense about what you’re saying, and what doesn’t. Once you are both satisfied that your partner truly understands your view- point and concerns, it’s your partner’s turn to do the same thing: share his view- point, feelings, and consequences it has for him. This is your turn to really listen supportively, to try to understand not only what he thinks and feels, but why he thinks and feels what he does. Keep in mind that your partner hasn’t had the communication training you’ve had in this class, so if he uses you-language or other defense-arousing communication, do your best to be graceful and not re- spond in kind. Instead, practice the nondefensive responses and accept the lion’s share of the responsibility for keeping the discussion productive. Falling into a downward spiral will only end up hurting you both. Most times, a sincere and honest discussion utilizing clear communication and supportive listening results in a greatly enlightened understanding of the is- sue for both of you. Remember how we learned that one of the benefits of good paraphrasing is that the paraphraser’s interpretation can often give new insight into the other person’s own understanding of the issue? That can be a huge ben- efit in problem-solving, so do your best to include some of that. Once you’ve both gotten everything out, feel understanding for the other, and feel understood by the other, you might realize that the issue is a little differ- ent than you thought. If this is the case, take a moment to restate the problem with your new information: Identify what you agree on and what you don’t agree on, and what each of you needs to feel good about the outcome. Step Four: Brainstorm and Analyze Options Once you’ve gotten all sides of the issue out in the open and clarified the true na- ture of the conflict, the next step is to brainstorm potential solutions and write them down. The first couple of options that come to mind will probably be famil- iar ones that you’ve already thought about. That’s as good a place as any to start, so go ahead and write them down. The key to success in this step is to push be- yond the familiar and not hold anything back, no matter how crazy it might sound. Believe it or not, the things that seem crazy or impossible often lead to true win-win solutions. Don’t shoot anything down at this stage—first you need to give it a chance. Once you’ve written down as many options as you can, go back and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each one (in terms of how it does or doesn’t meet the needs you each have). Quite a few may end up being crossed off the list once you’ve done this, but hopefully you’ll have a few options left that you can explore. At that point, think about how you’d implement them, and mutually choose the best option to try out. Step Five: Set a Time to Follow Up At this point, you’ve done the hard work and you are probably feeling pretty good about it. And that’s okay—enjoy and appreciate your success! But there is one last pitfall you need to avoid: Don’t blindly assume it’s going to work. Plan to give it your best shot, but also recognize that you can never know with certainty what the future holds. So, think about how long a good trial period would be for your solution, and mutually agree on a time to check back in with each other to talk about how well it is or isn’t working. That way, you make it “safe” for each of you to be honest about any difficulties you might encounter in implementing the solution. When you do get back together to follow up, be honest. Sometimes the solu- tion will be working just fine. More often, though, it will need a little adjustment here and there, and once in a while, you may have to start back at the beginning. Don’t let this scare you away from this last step, though. After all that effort, what would be the point of continuing with something that wasn’t working very well? The trust you built up in each other through the win-win process will carry you through whatever changes you need to make to it, as long as you continue to be honest and listen to each other. Win-win solutions are entirely possible, but they do take commitment, hon- esty, and good communication and listening skills. Consider how you can try this in your own life. Are you currently dealing with a conflict that is significant to a work or personal relationship? If so, give this a try. If not, think about the conflicts you are currently facing. It’s not a bad idea to try this out for the first time on some- thing that is of only moderate importance. That way, you can become familiar with it and work out any little difficulties you might encounter in its implementation, so that you’re more prepared to use it effectively when something big does come up. Table 10.5 summarizes the steps in the win-win method of problem solving.
EFFECTIVE CONFLICT RESOLUTION: SOME FINAL WORDS We’ve learned a lot about conflict in this chapter. You may have noticed that much of this chapter builds on what we learned in previous chapters. After all, the more you know about yourself, your personality, and your emotions, the better you can regulate your interactions with others. Also, the more you know about the social and cultural factors that influence our perceptions and prejudices, the more understanding you can be of others who have different viewpoints. Finally, communication skills—clear verbal and nonverbal language, supportive relational climates, and effective listening—all help reduce the likelihood of conflict, and at the same time make us better prepared to effectively resolve conflict when we do encounter it.
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