Greater recognition of the seriousness of global environmental change has led to an increase in research that assesses the vulnerability of households, communities and regions to changing environmental or economic conditions. So far, however, there has been relatively little attention given to how assessments can be conducted in ways that help build capacity for local communities to understand and find their own solutions to their problems. This paper reports on an approach that was designed and used to work with a local grass roots organization in the Solomon Islands to promote inclusivity and participation in decision-making and to build the capacity of the organization to reduce the vulnerability of communities to drivers of change. The process involved working collaboratively with the organization and training its members to conduct vulnerability assessments with communities using participatory and deliberative methods. To make best use of the learning opportunities provided by the research process, specific periods for formal reflection were incorporated for the three key stakeholders involved: the primary researchers; research assistants; and community members. Overall, the approach: (1) promoted learning about the current situation in Kahua and encouraged deeper analysis of problems; (2) built capacity for communities to manage the challenges they were facing; and (3) fostered local ownership and responsibility for problems and set precedents for future participation in decision-making. While the local organization and the communities it serves still face significant challenges, the research approach set the scene for greater local participation and effort to maintain and enhance livelihoods and wellbeing. The outcomes highlight the need for greater emphasis on embedding participatory approaches in vulnerability assessments for communities to benefit fully from the process.