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Power of the Poker Face: Why I use neutrality as a facilitator

By Jenny Medrano

DEI: Beyond the Buzzword.  Program Manager, Jenny Medrano shares insights and lessons learned while navigating diversity, equity and inclusion in her daily life.

Neutrality? No thank you.

The first time I experienced neutrality was at Building Bridges. I can admit, I definitely judged the facilitators who used this posture. I remember thinking, “Damn, these people are stiff and emotionless.”

What I mean by “neutrality,” is: facilitating a discussion with minimal facial expression, little to no nodding or affirmation of any kind, and rarely inserting your own opinion into any discussion.

So you could see how someone like me, an animated person who grew up in a passionate Latino household, was taken aback by this posture, and even a little unsettled.

My discomfort with neutrality began at my first training with Building Bridges. We had to participate in a lot of intense, experiential workshops that we were then going to facilitate for youth leaders.

[Image description: Photograph of Jenny Medrano, with a yellow emoji icon with straight lines for eyes and mouth overlaid on Jenny's face - suggesting no emotion being expressed.]
[Image description: Photograph of Jenny Medrano, with a yellow emoji icon with straight lines for eyes and mouth overlaid on Jenny’s face – suggesting no emotion being expressed.]

Each time I would express myself during deep discussions around identity and anti-oppression, I would get little to no reaction from either facilitator. All the participants would share their thoughts and opinions, getting emotional at times and freely showing those emotions. But the facilitators, they would just stare blankly back at us. That lack of affirmation bothered me at first, but then I grew used to it, and even came to expect it.

It’s not like the facilitators were passive in their facilitation. They were still asking thought-provoking questions, helping us hear each other out, and guiding us. They clearly had a plan, and were flexible in sticking to the plan and following where we wanted to take the topic. Yet, they would never make the discussion about them.

I thought that was so weird.

It got weirder on the last day of the training. We were enjoying the hot tub in the home that we rented out, and one of our facilitators joined us. Within minutes we were all laughing at some fart story being told by our facilitator.

I was shook.

She actually had a personality! I was surprised to learn that she was not a robot. I also learned something else, she had been using neutrality as a tool for her facilitation.

Putting it into practice. And not liking it!

When it came time for the summer youth program, our staff was expected to try out all of the facilitation skills we learned during our training, including the neutrality posture. And let me tell you, I was not happy about this.

I can remember critiquing, challenging, and being super resistant to this posture throughout the entire summer program. I would tell my director, the facilitator with the secret silly personality, that I don’t think this neutrality posture is for everyone. I told her how my Mexican culture has taught me to be warm and expressive and how I thought it was so rude that I couldn’t nod or smile at these young people.

Many times throughout the summer, I would find myself accidentally nod or smile at our youth participants as they were sharing their opinions. Mostly because I wanted to put them at ease as they put themselves in a vulnerable position. I was also tempted, and sometimes accidentally inserted my opinion into a discussion. I felt the teacher in me rise up as students seemed confused, I wanted to help them understand racism, immigration and so many other topics, but I tried my best to stick to neutrality, and when I slipped up, I would just get mad. I would think to myself, “how is acting like a robot even that helpful?!”

Coming around to the power of poker face.

It was not until recently that my mind completely changed on the neutrality.

It started changing during our year-round youth program. I realized that being a facilitator didn’t mean that I couldn’t share who I really was. Since we met in smaller groups instead of the large group during the summer, it was easier to go deeper with the youth. Inevitably, we all got to know each other a lot better, and many opportunities arose for me to share more of myself with them. As I continued to stay involved with Building Bridges as both a youth facilitator in Transform and an adult facilitator in Shift, I learned how to strategically use neutrality.

One of the biggest learning moments that happened in learning this strategy was at our past Connect Through Conflict training. At the end of the training, we got a lot of feedback from our participants about their unease and discomfort with our posture of neutrality.

As much as I could, I passionately expressed why this posture is the best and how I am Team Neutrality all the way! I tried to explain that neutrality helps facilitators not insert themselves into the discussions unnecessarily, and how neutrality helps us better navigate conflict when it arises. I told them I was apprehensive about it too at first but then I learned how to use it.

I’m pretty sure many of them were not bought into our posture by the end, their facial expressions gave that away. Amateurs.

Yet, instead of taking their constructive criticism personally, I reflected on this training with my team and we decided that we would try out something different in the future. During a recent Shift training, we introduced ourselves to the organization and also explained why we use a neutrality posture at Building Bridges. We told these adults that we may seem a little emotionless, and it might be a little weird that we don’t nod back at them, but that we choose this posture to make our trainings more about them, and less about us.

That one, little line of explanation changed the whole game. By the end, the participants of the training were sharing freely and seemed unbothered when their facilitators did not reflect back their emotions. They understood that we were there as facilitators to guide the discussion, but in the end, their group development was in their hands. In the end, the training was a huge success and the organization was able to put a plan to deepen inclusion in their workplace into effect.

Since that training, I’ve made it a habit to always explain why I use a neutrality posture. Every time, this has proven to be helpful for everyone, especially those who get anxious from sharing in groups. This is one strategic move that I’ve made with the neutrality posture, but there is another that I feel is even more important.

How neutrality has helped me.

Over the past few years, I have facilitated a fair amount of highly emotional workshops around diversity, equity and inclusion. The times that I’ve felt most grateful for the tool of neutrality, have been during discussions that start to involve the topic of women or racial minorities. It’s in those intense discussions that I am most aware of my identity as a Mexican-American woman. There’s no way I can hide this part of me.

It’s during these times, when the tension is high, and the topics being discussed either concern me or could easily offend me, that I lean on the neutrality posture. Specifically, I’m talking about times where I have had to facilitate a discussion on systemic racism in a group of majority white people, and I’m the only person of color.

Or, times when I have had to facilitate a power dynamic between a man and another woman, or even a man and myself. It’s been in these type of conversations where I have made sure to keep a stance of neutrality. In part, this stance has helped protect me. I feel protected in knowing that this posture doesn’t reveal my true emotions, so even if a participant were trying to get a reaction out of me in an effort to deter the conversation, I would not seem odd in maintaining a “poker face” (I mention this because it’s happened to me before, power does weird things to people).

Also, I’ve noticed that often times in conversations around privilege and oppression, those people with more power will look to those with less power as they express their opinions in hopes that the nod or affirmation of an oppressed person will put them at ease. For this reason, neutrality helps me save energy.  I don’t have to be that person who comforts the privileged, I am allowed to let them sit in their own discomfort.

Clearly, I’ve become a fan of using neutrality as a facilitator. One thing I know for sure is that in order for a person to become a fan or not, they are probably going to have to experience it themselves. After practicing neutrality, wrestling with it, and observing it, you might come to the same the conclusion as me, or not. But that’s all up to your own facilitation style and preference.

As for me, I’m going to keep using that puh-puh-puh, poker face, puh-puh poker faceeee.

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