As we go through creeks and crevices of life, there is an increasing awareness that adulthood comes with a sense of loss and distance, especially with parents. While for some people distance might be necessary because of an unhealthy environment, some are struggling to find a way back to their families but don’t know how. As the complications pile up, so does the distance and families come with a mastery of tucking things away and simmering in awkward silences — further straining the relationships. With her recent endeavour, The Homecoming Project, Astha Agarwal is supporting young people in reclaiming their family spaces by doing the one thing families often don’t do: talk it out.
For Agarwal, this idea stemmed from her experience of wanting to keep her family in the picture while she made decisions that were not so conventional. “We are not taught how to talk to our families or how to navigate difficult conversations. We are used to either dismissal or suppression which can lead to distance and rifts. Today families have become something we put up with rather than places we belong, which is something I wanted to try to change,” Agarwal. She has a decade-long experience working with youth organisations, has led youth leadership programmes towards a deep mindset shift, and holds a post-graduate diploma in conflict transformation and peace building from The Lady Shriram College, Delhi University.
Through interactions with young people, Agarwal, who works as a self-leadership coach, has recognised how family spaces can be hurtful and oppressive rather than nurturing as one would hope. Often young people, who are still dependent on their parents financially, find themselves struggling with helplessness in situations where they feel unheard, disrespected, and dismissed. For adults, these feelings might push them to maintaining a certain distance.
“When we talk of families, you’ll often hear people say, ‘It’s what it is’. There is a sense of powerlessness in it. Even people who wish that their family dynamics could be different, don’t feel they can do anything about it. This narrative of helplessness that has been cemented due to lack of support systems to initiate difficult conversations can be changed through the right tools,” Agarwal explains.
One of the approaches that The Homecoming Project focuses on is capacity building or what she calls transition persons, a term she borrowed from Stephen Covey. Covey describes transition persons as people who take the lead to transform unhealthy patterns into more contributing and constructive healthy ones within their families. Agarwal offers them support through the tools to build their internal competence to go through this. “As part of it, I currently offer group and one-on-one sessions. We start with group sessions and people can take it forward with one-on-one sessions,” she explains. All sessions are currently held online, making them accessible to more people.
Agarwal’s approach to conflict and resolution is based on non-violent communication, which draws from the belief that all human beings have the capacity for compassion and empathy. “It’s a different paradigm through which you approach your relationships and your being and according to it if we were to move away from correction to connection, a lot can change,” Agarwal explains.
For instance, one of her participants, who works in the field of gender justice and equality, was struggling to navigate their relationship with their father who would often raise his voice when imposing his opinions on the family or shut off conversations with ‘Enough, I have said it.’ In the sessions, they could separate their anger from the larger patriarchal system that was linked to the father’s behaviour instead of releasing all the rage on him, which might not have been helpful.
“We spoke about how their father is also a product of patriarchy, which led to a change in perspective. After our conversation, they initiated a more honest dialogue with their father and expressed how his raised voice and dismissal bothered them as well as expressed that they want to be heard and understood,” Agarwal explains.
While conflict resolution through authentic conversations equipped with the right tools can lead to change, Agarwal admits that families are different, and traumas are real so she is mindful about not telling anyone what they should do. The sessions are more about navigating their options and finding a way to address the hopelessness regarding the family space with the awareness of the battles one is ready to pick and those that are not on the table.
In the last few months, as Agarwal has helped people initiate intentional dialogue to create supportive spaces, she has also keenly observed the main issues in family conflicts. “One of the most unmet needs is the need to be heard. People are often starved to be listened to in the family space,” Agarwal says.
It is also beautiful to see how people open up in safe places, she adds. “I was a stranger to most of the participants but when we established that it was a safe place, there was faith and trust weaved into it and people opened up. Also, when people see that others are behaving a certain way because they are also hurt or longing for a connection, there is a lot more space for empathy which softens their approach.”
With the recognition that consistency is a requirement for any kind of change, Agarwal hopes to turn these sessions into an online course in the next year. It will be a way to bring people together on a journey of learning and unlearning.