Communities need therapy. A person-centred approach to community engagement

Mindset matters, especially when it comes to engaging with people in the community and the way you approach your engagement will have a significant impact on your ability to forge good connections and build trust.

At Thrive, we talk about adopting a ‘design-led’ approach. We favour design because it places the person, in the context of their whole life, at the centre of any new or changed service. Across public services, “person-centred’ has become a well-used term - it makes intuitive sense that we should put the person, not the organisation, at the heart of what we do when we design and deliver services. But what does it mean for ‘person-centred’ to apply to community engagement?

In his 2013 discussion paper for the Carnegie Foundation, “The Enabling State”, Sir John Elvidge highlights the strength of the public sector in providing more transactional, technically expert services and interventions while, in the more relational sphere, “the capacity for communities, families and individuals to provide mutual support and self-help is the most convincing way to add to the wellbeing we have now.”

With this relational, mutual support and self-help activity in mind, when we considered a person-centred approach in relation to community engagement, we looked to therapy as a metaphor. We gained insight from ‘person-centred therapy’ as developed by Carl Rogers. This approach has influenced many therapeutic approaches, and the field of mental health more generally, so it will be familiar to many in caring professions.

In common with asset-based approaches, person-centred therapeutic approaches start from a premise of individual human potential. This approach also aligns with our ‘living systems’ perspective and Rogers likened individuals’ tendency towards growth as like a living organism, seeking balance, order and greater complexity.

What does this therapeutic analogy mean for our engagement with communities? The person-centred approach highlights the importance of a particular stance and specific factors that enable effective community engagement:

There must be a relationship to enable change. It seems obvious, but unless practitioners form relationships with people in the community, there won’t be a positive change in outcomes.

Perceived power imbalances between public services and communities can make people feel vulnerable or anxious.

There must be genuineness on the part of the person seeking to engage. This doesn’t mean you need to know all the answers or be perfect. It just means being honest and trustworthy in your engagement.

Empathy without emotional involvement makes it possible to understand people’s experiences and how they feel about them, while maintaining neutrality and concern for the whole community.

Adopt a stance of unconditional positive regard. This means being open and able to listen to people’s experiences, good or bad, without conditions or judgement, so that people can open up and engage in honest dialogue.

Adopting this stance means being prepared to start somewhere, and go where the conversation takes you, genuinely holding the person, or people you are engaging with at the centre of your intention, letting them know they matter and you are an available resource for them.

In practical terms, what does this mean? Simply put, adopting a person-centred approach to community engagement means that your personal commitment to adding value to people’s initiatives and activities, is evident, whether that’s by the mere act of listening, offering advice or opinion, raising awareness or acting in support. It builds the necessary trust and connection to enable change.

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