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Building trust with the local community

Written by Dr Kate Hough, Research Fellow, Faculty of Medicine, University of Southampton, @DrKateHough

Over the past 18 months, I have been getting involved with local community groups as part of a broader project within my work researching hearing loss. Did you know hearing loss affects around one in five people in the UK?  And that unaddressed hearing loss can increase a person’s risk of depression, social isolation, and anxiety? It is also the biggest modifiable risk factor for dementia. Many people are unaware of this!

Our research focusses on understanding the barriers people with hearing loss face when accessing hearing healthcare such as hearing aids and cochlear implants. To inform our research, we established a patient and public involvement and engagement (PPIE) group for people with lived experience of hearing loss called ALL_EARS@UoS. You can read all about the evolution of the group on our website https://generic.wordpress.soton.ac.uk/all-ears/.

A challenge in public involvement is creating a group that reflects the diversity of our communities. As ALL_EARS@UoS developed, it was important for us that the group was diverse. We wanted our group to reflect the diversity of our local community as well as the diversity of the Deaf/deaf or hard of hearing community.

So, we designed a community engagement project to enable to us to meet, engage with, and get to know members of our local community. We aimed to go to where people were and start conversations about hearing and brain health. The first stage of the project was to build trust and relationships with local community groups. I wanted to share my experiences of how I built trust over time.

Firstly, we aimed to link up with community groups through connections we already had so there was initial familiarity. Rather than invite people to come along to the university, we aimed to connect with existing groups and visit them in their surroundings where they would feel most comfortable.

At the start, I found driving across Southampton and visiting different groups quite daunting. Often, I wouldn’t know what to expect, how many people I would meet or what I would be doing. Sometimes it felt like a real change in mode compared to my usual ‘researcher’ activities where I am often sat behind a screen. But over time, I got used to the unpredictable nature of it and knew that I was going to come out of a session feeling good and like I’ve made a difference – even in a small way.

I visited groups and got involved with all sorts of activities which ranged from crafts, games and singing. I would introduce myself but intentionally didn’t say a lot about my research or my academic background. I wanted to get to know group members and let them get to know me before starting to encourage conversations about my research area.

I quickly realised that for community engagement to be effective, you have to go in with an open mind and leave your academic achievements at the door. Anything you can do to squash any power imbalances should be done. I often went in as a volunteer who was willing to just get involved and chat with people. I tried to make it clear from the outset that I wasn’t after anything from the groups, my primary goal was to raise awareness.

I have summarised what I believe are the three most impactful characteristics for building trust in community engagement.

The three C’s of effective community engagement, you should BE:

  • Compassionate – if people are willing to be open and share their stories with you, respond in a compassionate way and listen carefully.
  • Committed – trust takes time to build, you have to put in the time.
  • Creative – creative in your approach, creative with your time and creative with your expectations.

Do you want to find out more about patient and public involvement and engagement? 

In our new, upcoming course ‘Nothing about us without us,’ you can learn about what makes good patient and public involvement and engagement in health and social care research. Register your interest for the course via this form or follow us on social media to hear news about the course and its release.