Empathy as a Way of Being

A conversation with Sonali Ojha, Ashoka Fellow and founder of the Dreamcatchers Foundation

When the devastating Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami struck at the end of 2004, hundreds of relief organizations rushed to the scene. Sonali Ojha's organization, the Dreamcatchers Foundation, was there too, but to perform a very different function than first aid and rescue.

In the wake of the catastrophic event, Ojha was there to create a space for dialogue, healing, and collective visioning to help young people and the communities around them move forward. In the midst of the turmoil and tragedy, she cultivated an intergenerational space steeped in empathy that allowed the community to find a path forward.

For more than ten years the Dreamcatchers Foundation has been engaged in this work, using a participatory, child-centered learning model to help young people around the world connect to their inner sources of strength and confidence in order to move toward their own visions of the future. While most organizations working with street children address problems of food, clothing, and shelter, Ojha's key insight from working with the children themselves is that in order to help them learn to live healthy, productive lives, they also need emotional support from the adults who work with them.

Ojha has helped countless communities  of young people have conversations about individual and collective visions, informed by life stories and circumstances. Whether the work is in an orphanage or a post-disaster zone, with children or an intergenerational mix, the process involves cultivating a deep level of understanding and interconnectedness amongst participants.

As much as possible, Ojha removes herself as facilitator and encourages others to model the empathetic behavior they wish to see. Here Ojha reflects on how empathy must make its way into the very fibers of school culture and how parents can help cultivate it at home too. 

Ashoka: How do you build a school culture in which empathy is practiced daily? 

Ojha: One of the things that’s very important in terms of transforming a school, or inviting the empathy piece into parents’ teachings, is that people need to understand that empathy is not about, “let’s take 20 minutes today and be empathetic.” It’s about creating a spiraling level of activity and engagement in school life, where no matter where you go. From the moment you walk into the school to the time you leave the school, no matter the nature of your engagement, you are invariably asked questions and placed in positions and placed in dichotomies where you will be forced to transact empathetically. 

For a kid who walks in at 9 a.m. and leaves at 4 p.m., what are the cycles of engagement that he or she is going through? And within each and every one of these cycles, what does an empathetic encounter look like?

How do you ensure that an empathetic encounter happens? If kids start to have this experience iteratively, this is who they will become. Children learn by repeating and repeating and repeating things, ad nauseum. So that becomes their way of life. 

The final culmination of empathy happens when three people can be together and hear each other out, and not need to dominate each other. They know that they all come from the right place for the right reasons, and that what they have to offer from their own worldview and perspective is valid and relevant.

How do we interconnect the three values that these people are offering, and find the right hooks that will link them together to create the hub of the story? That’s the empathetic action in the world. That’s what leads to the power and impact of not one vision in action, but three visions coming together in unified action, which is very, very powerful.

Ashoka: What are some ways that parents or teachers can cultivate that kind of empathy?

Ojha: Three things. First, have one conversation at a time. So much conversation is based on, I say something and you react to it, and I react to you, and you react to me.

Try to move from reactive conversations to conversations where you say your piece, and you allow your husband to say his piece, and you allow your child to say his piece, and you allow your second child to say her piece. And then when it comes back, ask yourself if all the reaction that you held onto as a mother is even valid anymore.

Do you really want to say that? People realize the reactive framework is really just the first framework in the deeper process of dialogue and genuine listening.

Second, forget control and instead, listen. Remember your child at two and three years old and ask yourself why you were so wonderstruck by your child. What was so wonder-striking about that child from the day he was conceived to the day he turned five or six?

What was the turning point in your life when you stopped being wonderstruck by him or her, and started to believe you now had to play a different role? How did you shift to play that role, and what did you give up in that process?

This is the fundamental place where parents go astray: so long as the child is this wobbly little thing, they are unconditional. And the moment the child goes through a process of development, where he or she is developing identity, or he or she is developing x, y, or z, there’s this tremendous desire to control.

So unconditionality moves into a relationship of control, and it becomes about who and what I wish to shape the child around. There are differences across cultures, but ultimately the role parents are playing is very similar.

Why not give up the desire to control your child and let him or her define who they are? Why the hesitation to sit back and simply listen? Parents are very afraid to discover their child might want to be and discover things they’ve never considered themselves.

And finally, give everyone the chance to contribute. It’s critical to learn how to give everyone white space. If you want to go on a family picnic, can everyone decide one piece that’s important to them, and can you allow that to happen?

Once you give that space and you allow it to happen, can you have the courage to have the conversation around what that meant for everyone? As a parent, you might be most resistant to your daughter’s idea of going and taking out all of the earthworms with the picnic. But when you actually spend that time with your daughter and understand why she’s doing it—that she’s not doing it to destroy life, but that she’s trying to explore how life works and who these creatures are—then perhaps you’ll look at the whole thing differently, and no longer leave it at, “I don’t think treating earthworms that way is right.”

Give space to everyone’s vision, allow it to happen, and then have the courage to ask, “what did it mean for me and for you?”