This past week, I was teaching a Culture Facilitation course when a student sent me a private chat in Zoom that read, “One day I want to be in the zone like you. I struggle with remaining calm and neutral but I’ll get there”.
Last week, I was facilitating a discussion in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection when someone came to me during a break and said, “Your ability to remain calm amid incredible tension and searing dialogue is commendable”.
In a related side note, I am constantly reminded that when people give me compliments, I need to just say thank you. I am incredibly uncomfortable with praise and attention. I just am. Some of this discomfort has to do with my personality in general. Some of it has to do with some social realities that I can’t escape.
The latter is where my head is when people commend me for being so calm and neutral; which happens a lot in my work.
Most of the discussions I facilitate are in the culture or diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging spaces. They are tense, honest, and at times painful. Necessary but painful. This has included trips to Minneapolis, Atlanta, Kenosha, and St. Louis in the aftermath of police shootings. Add on the Kavanaugh Confirmation, the abortion rulings in Georgia, and the aftermath of the Capitol riots and you get a gist of the environment’s I am regularly in.
One of the tenets of facilitation is ones ability to remain calm and maintain neutrality. Without these things, we cannot hold space for discussions that enable all parties to lean in with honesty, trust, and confidence.
A Social Reality
Still, I am a white male and as such, it is easier for me to remain calm and neutral. Why? Because the words people say do not affect me to the degree they might understandably affect a woman or a person of color.
- When people are talking about abortion rights, I’m not processing two simultaneous things: The conversation in the room and the potential loss of my rights as a woman.
- When people are talking about the George Floyd murder, I’m not dealing with the image of another brother lost while also trying to be a referee amid the dysfunction in the room.
This does not mean that I am not empathetic to social justice causes and events. I would not be a staunch advocate in the diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging space if I wasn’t. It just means that regardless of my passion, credentials, and success in this space, I do not associate with the words and events in the same way a lived experiencer does. As such, I am carrying a lot less on my shoulders than women, people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and anyone else from a marginalized group.
As part of the Culture Facilitation course, my co-instructors and I run an exercise called Incite to Insight. The intent is to intentionally incite the students in an effort to challenge their ability to remain calm, remain neutral, listen to understand, and ultimately get to the heart of the matter. As well, we demonstrate facilitation so that we can give them a sense of what right looks like. This means that the students get an opportunity to incite us. We never know what they are going to say but we encourage them to test our boundaries.
So there I was, taking it on the chin from a facilitation student, and remaining calm and neutral the entire time. It was at this point that the private chat message came in. Let me repeat it:
“One day I want to be in the zone like you. I struggle with remaining calm and neutral but I’ll get there”
The student who sent it was a Black female. She was also a brilliant facilitator — someone who likely didn’t need the training in the first place. She was that good. But she saw a difference between my capability and her own. I saw her capability on top of her intersectionality on top of the environmentals that have blanketed society over the past several years.
A Different Social Expectation
On the front lines, I am expected to be calmer, more reasonable, more approachable, and thus a better facilitator and mediator. If I were a woman or person of color, people would be skeptical of my ability to facilitate a discussion without getting angry, biased, or emotional.
How do I know these things? People have told me. Why? Because they trust me to hear it. Why? Because I am white and thus more rational and easier to talk to. Is this true? No. But here we are.
My business partner (Vince) is a Black male who is, without hesitation, the best culture facilitator I have ever seen. Generally speaking, white people don’t see that in him until they get comfortable with him. What they learn rather quickly is that he is more patient, tuned in, and calm than I. Vince has to center me more than I have to center him. These are facts. He knows it and I know it. Eventually, others get to this realization. After he disproves their initial perceptions of him. This is the crux of the problem.
There is a default perception that people of color are emotional and angry. The darker their skin color, the more prevalent the perception. We feel similarly about women which really means that women of color get the double whammy of judgment and skepticism. This is why people are so quick to compliment them for being articulate and professional — two words out of many others that only exacerbate our troubling expectations and the racism behind those expectations.
Quit Selling Yourself Short
I mentioned earlier that I am uncomfortable taking compliments. More than that, I am uncomfortable taking compliments that put me above other people without context or consideration of the ‘why’.
Am I am calm person? Yes.
Am I able to remain neutral? Yes. Especially in discovery. Once I’m done with the facilitation and put together an unbiased assessment, I become a passionate and staunch advocate.
Are there social realities that make it easier for me to be calm and neutral? Yes.
Is it problematic for people to see me as calm and neutral while seeing women and people of color as angry or emotional under the same circumstances? Yes.
Does acknowledging this reality mean I am selling myself short? Not in the very least.
I can be both capable and privileged. And I am.
I can be calm and attribute some of that calmness to the outcomes of my privilege. And I do.
Perhaps most importantly, I can do both of these things without feeling less than.
I am not. Neither are people in underrepresented and marginalized groups. And yet one of us faces the expectations of being great while the other has to be great in the face of racist and sexist expectations while simultaneously dealing with intersectionality.
That’s the truth. From my calm voice.