Effectively Engaging First Nations Communities by Denise Findlay


Denise Findlay is a principal consultant with Kweykway Consulting. She has a background in co-active coaching, process psychology, adult education, and developmental attachment theory.  She has worked with First Nation communities throughout Canada, including her own community, the Squamish Nation.

Dr Denise Findlay

Denise believes that there are complexities in working with people in community that most of us are not aware of consciously.  When we start to work with communities, these issues can arise and get in the way of the good work we want to do.  Denise is often called in to do intervention work with communities, where groups are working in the community, each with a strong vision, but not able to see eye to eye on approaches. Denise has learned through experience that the key skill required for this work, beyond educational qualifications, is to be courageous enough to be vulnerable with people and to stay with them throughout the process.

Denise focuses on self-reflection as central to the process of facilitating group process, in order to avoid repetitive behaviour patterns.


Create a Container

She draws on the work of Dr Stephen Shuiteveorder and the concept of creating a container in which the facilitation process can take place safely.  ‘How you are’ (how you show, behave, carry yourself, interact, connect) is part of what creates the container.  Dr Shuiteveorder’s starting point is, “Before we can talk, we have to talk about why we can’t talk.”

creating a container

Denise stresses that all growth comes from a place of rest.  When we feel safe, when we feel seen, when we feel understood, when we feel we can count on the people around us, then growth can happen. But if we don’t feel safe or understood, if we feel judged and criticized, our limbic system in the brain reacts involuntarily, puts us in defensive mode, and prevents us from resting and growing.  So, if we are able to reflect in a safe environment, we open ourselves to the potential for growth.  She notes that this is true both for adults and for children.

She recommends letting go of the agenda and being willing to work against your instincts that drive you forward towards content and subject matter.  “Starting with building relationship and connection is crucial.  Developing relationship is key to any process of growth and change.  If we move on too quickly, we are likely to find ourselves having to backtrack.”  Her experience as a facilitator has taught her the need to watch for the signs of emergence and internalization of desire for change within the community.  This doesn’t happen on a pre-determined timeline.  The energy for change has to come from the community members themselves.

“Take time up front to talk about concerns, to get to know and understand each other, in order to build a pot strong enough to withstand having heat applied…If we don’t build a strong enough pot, then the heat will crack it and leave us with a hot mess.  The trust gets broken and it is harder to re-build.”

Ideas that she suggests are:

  • Ask yourself:  “What are some of those dynamics in the background, what has happened, what was the relationship with your predecessor, what do you represent, what can’t I say, what are the taboos and implied rules?”  Often these are the very things that need to be addressed, and it takes huge courage to bring them in gently and start making them less frightening.
  • Ask, “What can we agree upon?”  Sometimes the points of agreement are: what would help the children, what would the elders have believed?
  • Talk about the beginning: how will we interact when things are working and how will we interact when we don’t agree.
  • Let people know what you can be counted on for; go with what is natural for you (e.g. you can say anything to me to my face about what you feel about the process).


Making Sense of Relationship Challenges

A.  Attachment Issues

Denise talks extensively about attachment issues and their effect on adult interactions and behaviour in community process.

Slide 7: attachment

She stresses that attachment is a pre-eminent need ensuring survival and commanding our attention.  Most of our attachment needs are unconscious to us.  They drive us, but we are largely unaware of them.

  • Age 0-1 we are only able to attach through the senses.
  • From 1 year onwards, we attach by sameness.
  • From 3 years onwards, we attach by belonging and loyalty.  Feelings of possessiveness and jealousy arise at this age.
  • Around 4, we begin to attach through significance.
  • From 5, we attach by love and psychological intimacy.
  • Around 6 and from then onwards, the primary attachment is around being known and understood.

She refers to the work of Dr Gordon Neufeld, which has shown that a lot of people get stuck at the developmental age of 2 or 3, at the levels of sameness and of belonging and loyalty, and their ability to form relationships remains very superficial.  Many people have not developed sufficient resiliency to let themselves get to the deeper levels of attachment because it is too risky, too vulnerable.


Her experience has shown her that in working with communities that have experienced intergenerational wounding that has impacted the ability to form healthy relationships, we are likely to observe evidence of separation.

She lists the Six Themes of Separation:

  1. Senses:  loss of contact, touch, sight, sound, not being noticed or recognized, not being invited to exist.
  2. Sameness:  being different, fear of not being normal, loss of identity.
  3. Belonging and loyalty:  not fitting in, being ostracized, losing face, feeling betrayed, disloyalty, not being stood up for
  4. Significance:  lack of approval, not being valued, losing favour, not feeling wanted, not being held dear, not feeling special to, not measuring up, fear of being replaced, fear of not being chosen
  5. Love:  not feeling loved or liked, lack of closeness, warmth, intimacy and connection
  6. Being known and understood:  not feeling seen or heard, feeling misjudged, not being seen from inside out, not being trusted, not being understood

The challenge that arises with individuals and communities where there has been wounding, where emotional needs have not been met and responded to, is a sensitized response of flight from vulnerability.  In order to work with communities that have experienced personal and corporate wounding, Denise argues that the facilitator needs to self-reflect by exploring their own vulnerable emotions, the ones they have a hard time being with in themselves.

She lists the vulnerable emotions as follows (noting that damaged responses are in the positive as well as the negative emotions):  hurt or wounded; insecure or unsafe; missing and emptiness; alarmed; caring; delight and excitement; joy and appreciation; guilt and remorse; interest and enthusiasm; desire or want; love and compassion; hope and anticipation; neediness and dependence; shame and embarrassment; inadequacy or shortcoming; responsibility; loneliness; and rejection.

B. Inter-generational wounding

Denise notes the specific inter-generational wounding that has affected First Nations people and indigenous peoples throughout the world:

  • Oppression: even Aboriginal professionals have to be wary of not demonstrating oppressive attitudes in the Aboriginal communities they are working with.
  • Disempowerment
  • Marginalization
  • Loss of tradition and culture
  • Loss of connection
  • Loss of belonging

C.  Aggression

Denise identifies aggression as a psychologically energetic attacking attitude (as opposed to violence).  Aggression is tough to measure, but impacts relationship building significantly.  Common examples include not greeting or acknowledging someone, or withholding information so that another person can’t complete their task on time or has to make a rushed decision.

Displaced Aggression

She asks, “How do we address aggressive behaviour?  We need to have the courage to back up, take time to address the issue, and acknowledge that the other person may not be consciously aware of their behaviour. “

She sees the root cause of aggression as frustration.  If we don’t acknowledge and recognize our frustration, our emotional buildup will lead us to aggression.  She notes that higher levels of aggression and violence, addiction, suicide and depression, are recognized indicators of long-term frustration.  Coming into communities, she suggests that we need to be mindful of this buildup of frustrations.

She draws attention to the distinction between aggression and anger:  “Aggression is not an anger problem.  Anger is a justice response, a conscious decision and choice. “

Anger is:

  • Only experience by humans
  • Evoked by a perceived injustice
  • Involves cerebral cortex and consciousness
  • Triggers impulse to seek justice

Frustration is:

  • Experienced by all creatures of emotion
  • Evoked by something not working
  • Root emotion that can exist without being felt
  • Triggers impulse to attack

She states that “Aggression plus Blame is a typical adult response, either with others or in our own head.  It ends up creating further frustration.”

  • Anger (it’s your fault)
  • Guilt (it’s my fault)
  • Shame (there is something wrong with me)

Given the above, her recommendation is that addressing the original emotion and frustration is much more productive than dealing directly with the aggressive behaviour.

She notes that in communities that have experienced oppression and have been denied a voice, a common response is displaced aggression towards those whom we perceive as weaker than ourselves.  The cycle of oppression is recreated. Repressed frustration also leads to depression.


Recognizing and Using Authority

Rank is a term that is used to define different dimensions of power.  Denise quotes Arnold Mindell: “Unconscious use (or conscious abuse) of rank is the core of all struggles within nations, organizations or groups.  We all need more awareness of rank issues.”

In our society, it is common for people to express the belief that everyone is equal, but Denise says, “Try telling that to someone who doesn’t feel as though they are equal, and you will get a response of significant frustration.  Sometimes we have to recognize and acknowledge that there is no way that we can comprehend the experience another person has had.  Insisting on the concept of equality is silencing and invalidating, and leads to outbursts of aggression.”

She stresses that the whole world is run on a system of hierarchies.  Power is not consistent.  “We can recognize immediately where we feel the greatest sense of power, because we will experience a sense of comfort and ease there.  Where we don’t feel comfort and ease, we know we are experiencing lower rank in that context…It is useful to self-reflect on where you feel ease yourself and where you don’t, where you have authority.  Acknowledge these feelings.  Recognize where you have power and exert power.”  Power is contextual and gives us privileges, comfort and ease.

Your Body Language

Denise suggests that it is useful to imagine that you have a sign that hangs over your head, that is out of your line of sight, and that flashes information about you to other people.  “Whatever my sign is flashing about me to you, informs your perception of my rank relative to you.  Sometimes we meet someone who we immediately can’t stand, even though we can’t explain why.  This is going to impact on every interaction we have with that person.”

She lists three types of rank:

  • Social rank = position in social hierarchy (e.g. age, inheritance, family name, wealth, housing, gender, education, employment, health, ancestry, race, connections); often bestowed on us and we have no choice in it.  “We need to be aware of social rank and mindful of the difference it creates for us.”
  • Psychological rank = internal resources (e.g. intelligence, self-worth, identity, motivation, confidence, influence, humour, serenity).  She suggests that individuals who have come from backgrounds of lower social rank, often have worked hard on developing their psychological rank.  “It is easy to assume in relationship that the other person has the same capacity and skill base as we feel confident with.”
  • Spiritual rank = connection to a higher power (e.g. faith, inner peace, trust, security, compassion, confidence in external guidance, calm, selflessness).  She notes that the person who operates from a position of spiritual connectedness needs to accept that other people’s anxiety and sense of individual responsibility are valid responses.

Finally, she states her strong belief that the only way we can begin to develop a vocabulary of understanding about the signals we are giving off to others is through self-reflection.  “Becoming more aware of our body language and tone helps us to understand how others perceive us.  Developing integrity, being true to oneself, having the inside and the outside match, matters.  If you hold rank, power and authority in a situation, the responsibility is yours to create space for the other person to feel safe enough to respond honestly.

“There is very little people of lower rank in a situation can do to create a safe space if leadership is not open and willing to engage in real communication.”  Where these inequities are perceived, her experience is that revenge behaviour is an inevitable consequence.  She notes that revenge is a result of perceived abuse of power; not feeling valued, heard or understood; and an absence of a sense of personal authority, power and influence.  “People’s feelings need to be recognized and addressed.  In particular, organizational structure can perpetuate gossiping, sabotage, criticism of leadership, passive resistance, lack of initiative.  This needs to be addressed in creating change and growth.”

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