The power of conflict and dialogue: is compassion and giving natural in families?

Sibling RivalryRecently, I was asked if compassion and giving is natural?


I was thinking back to the last family vacation we had on the beach and everyone was working together so easily. Sure, compassion and giving is easy when we’re all relaxed and feeling happy, happy, joy, joy for each other, but I guessed that those moments are not the times this question was referring to. I thought of one of many conflicts that happen in our house each week. Oh, did I say WEEK? I mean each DAY!


One of my kids did something that hurt her brother. It doesn’t matter exactly what was said or done. It’s always the same. Someone “looked at me” or “touched my things” or “poked me”. I’m sure you can relate.


I motioned us to gather at the kitchen table to hear the story. With yelling, accusations and all, each sibling began with their side of the story. I asked that one person talk at a time so we could hear them both.


My son told us about his hurt and disappointment. He wanted to be asked first if someone wanted to see or use his things. When he finished his story, I asked him if he was heard the way he wanted. He said “yes” in that tense sort of way that says “I’m still not happy”.


We heard my daughter’s side of the story – of how she was having fun until her brother hit her.


I sat beside my daughter, who felt defensive and accused because her brother had been given the opportunity to share his side of the story. She looked tense and was pissed off about this. I asked her what she heard her brother say.


Besides hearing accusations, she also heard that asking to play with other people’s things is important, not just to her brother but to her too. She likes it when others ask her before taking her things.


We quietly paused for a moment.
I felt something soften.


My daughter said she felt ‘yucky’ inside. She pointed to her stomach and made a face like her tummy was upset.

I said, “That’s the feeling of regret or guilt. It lets us know…” and my daughter and I said together, “WE CARE.”

I said I was so glad to hear that she cared. It’s good to care even when we feel yucky sometimes. It helps us to live together in peace.


She turned to her brother and apologized for taking his things without asking. He accepted her apology.
All of us moved onto other activities.
Discussion over.


Reality check: estimated time for discussion was 15 minutes.
That’s important to note because we could have spent that time in arguments over who did what, who was to blame, and me playing “police” and issuing a consequence. I didn’t have the energy for that. Instead, each child took responsibility for their part in the conflict and solved it themselves.


Are you wondering why I didn’t address the issue of safety when my son hit his younger sister?
I guess it wasn’t needed because each of the kids felt heard and we got to the heart of the matter. I’ve seen it time and time again; we enjoy giving when we are connected and have choice.


Let’s break it down so you can use this recipe too.



  • to hear every side of the story and the meaning it held for each person


  • to be willing to hear the meaning even when you think you know the “truth”


  • so that we did not rush the time even when we felt impatient

A few questions like “what did you hear?” and “were you heard the way you wanted?” to track the dialogue

Carefully placed comments and observations

  • For example, when I met my daughter’s gaze and I had a sense that she was willing to receive a small dose of what I wanted to say, I gently shared the bit about “caring” and it worked that time. If she wasn’t open to receive after all, I would have gone back to dialogue with an extra dose of love and empathy.

Warmth, tone, and pace

  • You probably can’t see or hear it in this article – or maybe you can. My small feeling of hope was fueled by our willingness to explore this conflict together.

15 minutes

  • Give yourself about 15 to 30 minutes if you’re willing to explore conflict in this way. If you find yourself unwilling, it’ll likely take longer.



Carefully mix openness, curiosity, spaciousness, questions and comments together with warmth for about 15 minutes.
Outcome will vary every time.
Serves: all


Is compassion and giving natural in families?
What do you think?

Author: Wendy McDonnell, © January 2014
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