This blog is a personal perspective on an event, written with input and approval from members of the Primary Care Public Involvement Group PRIMER, the main organisers of the event.
“Public involvement in research is all about relationships”, says Carole Bennett (Chair of PRIMER), opening our discussions on ‘Managing Difficult Situations in Public Involvement’. What happens when these relationships – as most do – encounter choppy waters? How do we navigate them? Where do we drop anchor? What provisions do we set sail with?
We’ve all been there, as public contributors, researchers or public involvement practitioners. But we don’t like to talk about it much…
In a carefully and thoughtfully organised morning, our workshop tables, comprised in equal parts of public contributors and researchers, with some creative public engagement practitioners (myself included) begin to identify examples and themes of difficult situations in public involvement in (health-related) research. On our table, these include:
- The importance of recognising complex power dynamics in public involvement in research,
- Identifying and dealing with inappropriate behaviour, which can (at times and unfortunately) come from all parties in public involvement,
- The vital role of clear and open communication, again from all involved,
- Navigating continuity, chaos and control in public involvement relationships, as well as emotions and boundary setting,
- The importance of taking steps to anticipate and prevent, as well as manage, difficult situations.
So, what can we do to avoid difficult situations?
Lots of logistical, practical things. Ground rules, agreed methods of communication, clear instructions. Working with trained creative facilitators to enable safe spaces for disruptive conversations. But, most of all, and especially for those who feel constrained by rules and regulations (and let’s face it – rules, regulations and processes are what we do best in research), let’s focus on our values, our motivators, our drivers, our limitations.
Let’s move away from the cultural imperialism of the research environment on public involvement in research. Let’s be human.
Our afternoon discussions creatively focused on fictional but fact-based and highly resonant case studies around:
- Power dynamics
- Dealing with emotional issues
- Social media
- Becoming unwell
I can’t possibly capture all the discussions here, and they will be fully reported in due course by the (amazing) organising team*. But guess what came up again?
Martin Lodemore, from INVOLVE, summed it up nicely: we need to move towards values and principles that enable researchers to give more of themselves within this work. Processes are important, but values are essential for building relationships based on respect and trust.
Which led me (and others, of course) to think. What if we started our public involvement in research from a different place? What would planning, delivery and training in public involvement in research look like if we started from a place of acknowledgement of power dynamics, mutual empathy and welcoming positive disruption, instead of a place of procedure and public involvement formulae? Moving away from the cultural imperialism of the research process towards being human. Towards being a bit messy, non-linear, emotional, creative; but importantly, with the support and mutual connection a relationship brings, and of course, some agreed boundaries (safe words?). Understanding that our relationship might not always cruise through smooth waters, we might break up on the jagged rocks, but we have a cargo load of humanity on board. Perhaps it’s too scary a place for some.
But we’re on it (with others from the meeting). Watch this space.
*Managing Difficult Situations in PPI was an event held on 7 February 2017, organised by PRIMER, the NIHR Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre, funded by the Social Responsibility team at the University of Manchester