From Sibling Conflict to Sibling Camaraderie: Micro-Circles Part 2

Photo by ethermoon on Flickr

I have been pleased and gratified by the enthusiastic response to my article on using "micro-circles" to address conflict between children in a variety of settings (3 Steps That Transform Sibling Conflict into Sibling Camaraderie). Many people have shared stories of how well the process has been working in their homes and classrooms.

Many have also shared snags and difficulties, asking how to respond to situations where one or more participant won't reflect what they are hearing, breaks down in tears, or "refuses" to try the process.

"Micro-Circles Part 2" is my attempt to gather, in one place, my scattered answers to these questions and to share my ongoing discoveries as we use the process at home. Please continue to write and share both your successes and struggles  - so we can continue to learn together. 

Note: If you have not seen the original article, I imagine it may be helpful for you to start there.

Also, please note that, although the original article focuses on children, our family has now begun to use micro-circles between parent and child (other parent facilitating) and, occasionally, between parent and parent (with my 8 yr old facilitating).
a.k.a. Ways to Improve the Effectiveness of Micro-Circles


Dominic Barter (co-creator of the Restorative Circles process, on which "micro-circles" are based) says that the more voluntary the participation of each person, the more "restorative" a circle will be. Thus, it may be helpful to hold the micro-circle option lightly, without attachment to the idea that this is the process we must use for THIS micro-conflict (or all micro-conflicts). 

           a. Discuss Options Ahead of Time

One way to increase a sense of choice and buy-in is to discuss your options for addressing conflict with your family, classroom or group of friends, including the use of micro-circles. It may be easier to answer questions when people are not upset with each other, and you can demonstrate how micro-circles work - if there is interest. Then, everyone can choose whether micro-circles are one of the main options they want for addressing future conflicts.

            b. Discuss Options in the Moment

When there is no standing assumption about micro-circles being a favored tool, or when a person expresses hesitation or disinterest in using the process, it can be helpful to remind everyone that they have a choice.

It helps me in these situations to honestly believe that there are other ways to address micro-conflicts - like having people separate from each other for a short time, switching activities, having a snack, having ME reflect each person for a bit so they each feel heard (this last one requires me to be more "centered"), having me hear both sides and come up with a solution (most kids know how that usually ends up) - or having them yell at each other for another 2 minutes and THEN offering a micro-circle again. Knowing a micro-circle is just ONE option, allows my body language to match my words when I remind us all that we have a choice and we decide, together, which option we would like to pursue.


While this is not "necessary," I have found that a few minutes of "set up" to get everyone in the zone tends to benefit the process.

This may involve helping folks relax a bit before jumping in, reminding everyone why you are choosing to address conflict this way, or reassuring someone who is willing but not quite ready.

a. Relaxing
To help everyone (including me) relax a bit before beginning, I find it helpful to take a deep calming breath and invite everyone to sit down where they can see and hear each other, aiming for a tone closer to that of an event hostess than of a wrestling referee. Then, I may take another deep breath before I begin (this often creates spaciousness for others to take a breath or relax their bodies a bit). I have found that even this brief moment of centering helps the micro-circle be more productive.

b. Reminding
If people (including me) still seem unsettled, I may say a few words reminding everyone why we are here and emphasizing that we will be reflecting meaning, not "parrot-phrasing," in Barter's words. In our family, this may sound something like this:
"Ok, so just a reminder. We've chosen to do this micro-circle because it helps us hear each other, connect to each other and to find solutions that work for all of us. Each of you will get to say what's important to you. The other person will say back the meaning of what they heard. Not the dictionary definition of the words but the underlying meaning of what the other person is saying. Then we'll come up with ideas for how to solve the issue. Ok? OK. So - Rachel, what do you want Aaron to know first?"
[please note that I usually say that we will help solve "the issue," rather than "the problem." In this framework, conflict is seen as an opportunity to increase understanding and connection, not necessarily as a problem]

         c. Reassuring

In some circumstances, I may take steps to comfort or reassure a person who is too upset to listen or speak - but seems interested in participating in a micro-circle. For instance, yesterday, our 3 yr old would not respond to repeated requests by her dad to "please move over there" (to give her brother some privacy to undress). Dad then became upset and, in a somewhat loud and frustrated voice, said "OK, I'm calling a micro-circle!"

Upon hearing this, the 3 yr old burst into tears (since she had called a micro-circle earlier that day, I assumed the tears were a reaction to his tone, not the micro-circle itself). Thus, I stopped what I was doing and asked them both to follow me into the kids' room and have a seat. While both followed me to the room, showing agreement to participate, my daughter continued to cry loudly. Guessing that she would be open to some extra comfort/reassurance, I invited her to sit on my lap while my husband sat facing us. We then conducted the micro-circle with me holding her the entire time, and her crying being part of the micro-circle, rather than something to get past so we could start talking (see below).


For various reasons, one or more person involved in the micro-conflict may not trust that the process will benefit him/her. They may believe this is another way for others, including the facilitator, to get what they want. They may have limited experience with what it feels like to come up with a solution that works for multiple people (as opposed to having to give up what they want). They may not be able to imagine what may be possible when people who disagree take time to listen to each other. Or they may approach most new things with a healthy dose of skepticism.

If you suspect this may be the case, and you are committed to using a more restorative way of addressing conflict, you may be able to help increase their trust in the process by addressing the issue of trust in the moment, outside of a live conflict, and/or modeling the process for them.

        a. Address Trust Directly

A fine place to address the issue of trust is in a scheduled "options" conversation (see Increasing Sense of Choice, above).

However, if you have not had this chat yet, you may sometime be able to address the issue of trust during a live conflict, for instance, after a person expresses hesitation or does not want to "reflect" what the other person is saying. Some questions that may get at that are:
"Are you wondering if this new way will really help?"
"Are you worried this is not going to work out well for you?"
"Are you wondering how this reflecting thing can really help?"
You can then transition into the "options" conversation (i.e., this is just one option of several; we can also try X or Y; or we can try this and see how it goes). If they seem open to trying it, I would recommend reviewing how the process works (see example of this under "setting the tone") so everyone is agreeing to the same thing.

     c. Show, Don't Tell

Sometimes, an example is worth a thousand explanations.

If one person in your family or group feels skeptical or skittish about the process, have them witness it in action a few times - as you facilitate between other people. Watching the process can help increase trust in two ways: by making it more familiar (thus, less scary) and by showing what the results tend to be.

Remember that you are not limited to the people living in your household. Micro-circles can be facilitated between adult friends, kids of friends, or between an adult and child. You can also be honest that you are learning the process, wanting more practice, or wanting your child/spouse to see how it works. People are often more willing to participate in something new if it's a contribution to someone else.

a. Gentle Reminders
Micro-circles, like other restorative practices, benefit from having meaning - not content - reflected, as people feel better understood this way. While this is not always necessary for small disputes, I find it helpful when emotions are running high to gently guide everyone to reflecting more meaning. Some phrases that seem to increase the likelihood of meaning being reflected (with my kids) are:
"So, what is the meaning of what you hear Rachel saying?"
"What do you think she wants you to know underneath her words?"
"Is that the main meaning you wanted him to understand?"
Of course, these phrases are more likely to serve as gentle reminders if you have already talked about this idea during the "setting the tone" part.
b. Body Language
The other way I may shift attention to meaning vs content is to treat purely non-verbal communication (silence with crossed arms, crying, looking down without speaking) as no different than verbal communication.

For instance, in the incident I described earlier, between my daughter and her dad, she was still crying hard when we climbed up on my lap to begin the micro-circle. After holding her for a minute quietly and wiping her face a bit, I began with something like this:
"Rachel, what would you like your dad to know?"
Rachel continues to cry.
Turning to my husband: "What do you think Rachel wants you to know?"
[pauses and looks at her] "That she is very upset right now?"
"Is that right, Rachel?" [she nods, her crying a little softer]
"Is there anything else you want daddy to know right now?"
She shakes her head no and keeps crying.
Turning to my husband again. "Ok, what would you like Rachel to know?"
"I guess I was feeling angry before but now I feel a little sad."
"Rachel, what do you hear daddy saying?"
"The meaning?" she says through her tears.
"Yes, the meaning," I say.
"That there are two people here who are sad?"she says, just sniffling now.
"Yes," my husband agrees. "Yes, you and I are both sad now."
[we continue from there, moving to the actual incident that occurred]
5. LET THEM EAT CAKE (or carrots)

While I already mentioned this in the original article, it bears gentle repeating. We have found that if one or more of the participants are hungry or tired, things do not tend to work out. If you sense that hunger is the culprit, I recommend calling for a non-punitive snack break first, with assurance that you will come back to the issue immediately after (although, often, they will no longer need a micro-circle by then). If someone is just too exhausted to listen and reflect, it may be a good time to separate or switch activities. This is something I am learning to spot better with time - so just a heads up.

Fall 2011: Restorative Circles learning event in my town of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois: October 12-16, 2011 

Want to chat about conflict and kids in person while learning Restorative Circles (RC) from Dominic Barter, RC co-creator? Read more below...

Dominic Barter, co-creator of Restorative Circles (RC), will be offering the only 2011 North American RC learning opportunity right where I live (along with his team and other RC folks). Click on links below to register and let me know you saw it here so we can connect at the event!

One Day RC Overview Registration

Four Day RC Facilitation Practice Registration


 Other posts about Conflict and Restorative Practices:

The Restorative Revolution

The Most Important Thing to Know About Conflict

Speaking While Upset: Moving From Destrctive to Constructive in 6 Simple Steps


  1. when i read the part that Rachel and her dad said they were both sad I began to cry. I too was sad in that moment because I was remembering and mourning how many time I could have used those two simple ideas (what are you feeling and what is the meaning) to reconnect my children with each other and me with them. Crying forward, for those who will morn the moment I am in right now.

  2. Thank you Pat for your sweet comment. I feel touched by it and by your reminder of the gift RC has given our family. And glad to be in companionship with you and others who are moving forward in more restorative ways than we might have had access to before.

  3. Thank you Matthias. I am excited to see this (restorative movement) happening on a global scale! If you try it out and would enjoy more tips, I have written a "Part 2" which answers common questions from people who have tried it and want to improve on it.

  4. this is super inspiring to me.
    how can i get in touch with the author?