The challenge in working with different kinds of ‘thinking partners’…
I recently read the excellent report from the Alzheimer’s Society on their evaluation of their research network. One quote that leapt out for me was from a carer who said:
Sometimes involvement can feel like conflict even though everyone is on the same side. Everyone wants good quality research to generate evidence that can change people’s lives for the better. But because researchers and patients come at this from different angles, it can feel like there’s a disagreement. Carer (anon)
For me this encapsulates one of the challenges for researchers in working with patient/public ‘thinking partners’. But I’d suggest this is good, healthy conflict. It’s what helps to sharpen ideas and make better decisions. It’s ‘conflict as thinking’, as Margaret Heffernan described in a TED talk in 2012. She’s concerned that people often try to avoid conflict because it makes us so uncomfortable. She says we need to dare to disagree to get the benefits. She sees conflict as:
… a fantastic model of collaboration. It’s about working with thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators…It requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the natural drive to find people mostly like us, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, with different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.”
The value of researchers working with patient/public thinking partners is that their knowledge and experiences are so very different – but engaging in this kind of constructive conflict is difficult. What I sometimes see is researchers becoming defensive of their ideas and resistant to change, or sometimes overly deferential to patients/ the public, and reluctant to be critical of others’ contributions. When involvement is understood as a conversation that supports two-way learning, then sharing ideas and working through disagreements is a crucial part of the process. I wonder what more could be done to prepare everyone involved to listen and learn from different perspectives? Would it help if people simply saw conflict as good thinking…
Blog post #1: PPI. Learning it is. What can Yoda teach us about involvement in research?
Blog post #2: Researchers and the public as ‘thinking partners’. Why there’s no ‘method’ for involvement.