By Aswathi Prakash
Initiative Fatigue is the dampening of morale and will to continue engaging that happens when attempts at dialogue or engagement seem to consistently fail – either due to resistance from parties to the dialogue, a feeling of not moving towards a solution or simply, the sense of not being able to affect any change. While everyone who has been in a difficult conversation can relate to this feeling of Initiative Fatigue, it is admittedly a constant companion to those working in the social sector or seeking to drive change in various ways.
We at Kshetra posit engagement using the Dialogic Method – which is built on fundamental three principles of Value Creation, Non-Binary Approach and Self-Determination – towards crafting actionable, sustainable solutions that result in win-win-win outcomes.
Continuing to engage or forcing parties to engage once Initiative Fatigue sets in, goes against the principle of self-determination, that is, acting out of their own choice and willingness. Where self-determination is absent, not only are the outcomes less likely to be representative and inclusive, but also, they are likely to not be sustainable solutions. For this reason, Initiative Fatigue has so far been considered a limitation of the Dialogic Method (DM). (Read more here.)
However, a workshop we recently conducted prompted us to think otherwise. Conversations with some of the participants led us to discuss the plausibility of ‘Self: Regulate’ as a mitigator in the context of Initiative Fatigue. This provides a possibility of Initiative Fatigue being a challenge that can be overcome using the elements of the DM itself.
How (and why) does Initiative Fatigue happen?
One of the reasons for Initiative Fatigue could be the baggage of residual feelings and unprocessed emotions, that are often lugged along to each attempt to engage in changemaking. Oftentimes, by presuming an absence of a stake in the situation, changemakers tend to deem their emotions inconsequential and set them aside, ultimately paving the way for burnout. Burnout is increasingly being recognised in the social change work sphere and many young changemakers have reported having experienced some degree of burnout while in the space.
When emotions are left unacknowledged, they remain unprocessed, constricting the space for any productive engagement. Unacknowledged emotions often project themselves onto the situation at hand, sometimes even in the form of outbursts or intense showdowns. Acknowledging emotions is critical to move towards their acceptance, and this acceptance is crucial to take the next steps to handling and resolving situations. This is what Self: Regulate – A key component of the “Understand” phase of the Dialogic Method is about.
What is Self: Regulate?
The Dialogic Method Framework (Read more here) is a three by three matrix that provides a structure to use dialogue towards varied outcomes, including but not limited to, conflict resolution, problem solving, building consensus and mobilising people. A problem situation is viewed as a tree with multiple branches and roots, each corresponding to different aspects of a problem. (Read more about The Dialogue Tree here.) The second stage of the Dialogic method is Understand, in which different layers of the problem – the soil that the Dialogue Tree nests in, to continue the metaphor – are uncovered and dealt with, using the corresponding tools. The first layer that we dig through in the Understand stage is ‘Emotion’ because more often than not emotions are the first observable facet of a dissonance situation. And Empathy is the corresponding tool that we use to dig through this.
Empathy itself has two elements to it- ‘Self: Regulate’ and ‘Other: Relate. ‘Self: Regulate’ is our point of interest here.
‘Self: Regulate’ involves identifying and acknowledging one’s emotions to be able to relate to the other (‘Other: Relate’).
In the case of changemakers, Self: Regulate will allow them to identify and acknowledge in themselves feelings of frustration, anger, disappointment and the like. This will help in clearing their mental canvas for further dialogue or engagements without draining themselves out.
This will also help them understand that the utility of Self: Regulate need not be confined to use as part of a dialogue process alone. Rather, Self: Regulate is a stand-alone tool that can be used independently and in multiple contexts, one of them being the mitigation of Initiative Fatigue.
Learnings from the Ground
We recently conducted a workshop for a group of young changemakers working to strengthen governance and enable effective functioning of public institutions. While on the topic of Self: Regulate, the discussion went to how Self: Regulate would allow us to be a blank canvas that could accommodate the feelings of the other through the exercise of empathy. One of the points that was raised to this was that as changemakers, one always goes to the field with a blank canvas, as changemakers are the third or neutral party in the scenario. To this however, another participant had a different take.
She posited that a blank canvas cannot be naturally assumed and is something that only comes with years of field experience, making it difficult for those early in their career. She confessed to having felt dejected and dispirited when projects that have been in work for months consistently failed to progress, and thought out loud about how Self: Regulate might be a tool to deal with these feelings. This greatly resonated with the other participants, who then began sharing similar experiences and seeing value in using Self: Regulate to deal with their own thoughts and feelings.
The discussion hence concluded on the possibility of Self: Regulate being an antidote to the frustration that keeps growing with each unsuccessful engagement as with Self: Regulate, the feelings are identified, acknowledged and accepted as they arise, preventing them from being accumulating up and taking up mental and emotional bandwidth in the changemakers. It is this discussion that triggered the thought of how Self: Regulate may well work as a means of managing Initiative Fatigue – by allowing changemakers to function as Invested Changemakers, without losing out on their effectiveness or efficacy.
The idea that something seemingly simple as allowing yourself the space to feel what you are feeling, identifying and acknowledging it, frees up your mental space to accommodate further experiences without fatiguing yourself, is a transformational one. It is also an important practice to sustain the will to drive change in the face of multiple and consistent failures. Initiative Fatigue is prominent in but not limited to, the social sector. The utility of Self: Regulate in preventing Initiative Fatigue in the bazaar sector is also something that can be explored in this light.