Maintaining a poker face doesn’t necessarily mean suppressing your feelings or being dishonest. It simply means practicing emotion regulation by being aware of your facial expressions and body language and using them strategically. In this piece, the author explains when to put on a poker face, or not, and offers practical strategies for how to interrupt your inner eruption. The better you can self-regulate, the easier it will be to express your emotions in a way you feel proud of.
Jude, a chief operations officer at a digital banking company, was the type of leader everyone loved. Kind and welcoming, he had a knack for connecting with others and inspiring trust from his team. But as an emotional person (or what I call a sensitive striver), Jude often wore his heart on his sleeve. He found it challenging to hide his emotions during inopportune times, and his facial expressions often gave away his true feelings — even if it didn’t serve him or others.
Jude once told me about a particularly tense customer meeting where his emotions and caring nature got the better of him. As COO, Jude had been called in to intervene after a series of conflicts had occurred between the customer and Jude’s frontline team.
As Jude began presenting a plan for getting the project back on track, the client interrupted him and peppered him with a litany of concerns and complaints. Jude tried to remain diplomatic and project authority, but his voice began to shake, his eyes darted around the room, and he struggled to come up with answers and strong retorts. Jude felt embarrassed that he had lost his cool and realized that, as a leader, he’d inevitably run into future situations that required him to maintain a poker face.
As an executive coach to highly sensitive professionals, I’ve witnessed firsthand how a leader’s perceptiveness and attunement to others can revive morale, inspire trust, and create a positive work environment. After all, emotions are undoubtedly an important leadership tool. Joy, enthusiasm, and excitement can lead to higher motivation, while camaraderie and connection can boost collaboration.
But these same deep-feeling professionals often ask me, “How do I maintain a poker face?” The most skillful leaders recognize that while most of the time it can be beneficial to put your feelings on display, there are certain situations when unleashing your raw, unfiltered emotions can backfire, as Jude found out firsthand. Whether it’s during a high-stakes meeting, a performance review, or any other workplace encounter, consciously and carefully controlling how you express your reactions can be a big challenge.
Maintaining a poker face doesn’t necessarily mean suppressing your feelings or being dishonest. It simply means practicing emotion regulation by being aware of your facial expressions and body language and using them strategically. Here’s how to do that.
Select situations wisely.
A poker face isn’t suitable for every situation, nor should it be a consistent way of communicating. Concealing too much, too often can make you appear less trustworthy, competent, and likable. Often in leadership, your team, colleagues, and customers need to see how you react in order to feel psychologically safe and to inform their own decisions. So how do you decide when to put on a poker face? Ask yourself:
- How will expressing my emotions help or hinder my goals? If you’re trying to build relationships and rapport, using a poker face may come across as insincere or uninterested, whereas if you’re negotiating, it may be advantageous to protect your position.
- What’s my role in the interaction? For example, if you’re leading a meeting, you may want to display more confidence and assertiveness, whereas if you’re a participant, you may want to display more openness and receptivity.
- How appropriate is it for me to show vulnerability in this context? Consider whether the situation calls for a more guarded approach or whether it’s appropriate to be more open, along with your personal style and what feels more authentic to you.
- What are the norms of the people or organization I’m communicating with? Different cultures and groups have different expectations around the expression of emotions. Adjust your behavior accordingly.
Identify your tells.
In the game of poker, a tell is a slight change in behavior that can give away whether you have a good hand or a bad one. Identifying your tells — the physical or behavioral cues that give away your emotions or intentions — can be useful to help you control your response and maintain a poker face in appropriate situations.
As you interact with people throughout your day, observe yourself in different contexts. Take note of any patterns that arise when you’re calm versus when you’re feeling nervous, worried, angry, or stressed. Perhaps you run your fingers through your hair, sway or rock in your chair, or avoid eye contact. A longtime tell I’ve worked on curbing is my tendency to bite or pick at my nails when I feel like I’m under pressure.
If possible, record yourself in different situations and review the footage to look for tells. You can also ask a trusted mentor or colleague to reflect back patterns they’ve seen that you’re not aware of.
Be mindful of your body language.
When you choose to use a poker face, you don’t want to appear like a cold, stoic statue. You’ll be more successful if your facial expressions maintain a touch of warmth. Take a few slow, deep breaths to calm your emotions, and imagine releasing all the tension from your face. That could include loosening your jaw and moving your tongue away from the roof of your mouth. Try softening your gaze, too. If you’re feeling tense or anxious, you may inadvertently narrow your eyes or stare fixedly at something, so try focusing on a point in the distance to relax your eye muscles.
Maintaining a poker face involves tending to your tone of voice. Speak low and slow. Reduce your rate of speech, which may speed up if you’re angry or fearful. Speak from your diaphragm (your lower abdomen) to produce a deeper and more resonant voice. Find neutral phrases that move the conversation forward but don’t give away your position, such as “that’s interesting” or “help me understand…”
Interrupt your inner eruption.
The better you can self-regulate, the easier it will be to express your emotions in a way you feel proud of. You can practice responding, not reacting, with simple tools to calm your nervous system:
- Grounding techniques: Count backward from 100, identify five things in the room that are a certain color, or clench and release your muscles.
- Visualization: Imagine a peaceful, calming scene, such as a beach or a forest, and try to picture yourself in that environment.
- Cold exposure: Hold a glass of ice water, suck on an ice cube, or splash your face with cold water.
Remember, having a poker face doesn’t mean suppressing your emotions or being robotic. It’s about being mindful of your facial expressions and body language in order to communicate effectively and achieve your goals. Trust in your ability to stay cool, calm, and collected no matter what challenges come your way.
When it comes to success in the different aspects of one’s professional career, being able to quickly assess a given situation and make a decision can often prove to be beneficial. Unfortunately, there are situations when emotions can influence decisions and objectively gauge the situation at hand. This is known as the poker face – the ability to remain cool and composed in the face of a challenge.
In business and professional circles, a poker face can be advantageous when it comes to negotiations, decision-making, and communication with superiors, co-workers, or clients. It can show that you are well composed and are prepared to handle any challenge in an unbiased and level-headed manner.
It is important to remember that a poker face is not an excuse to not think about the situation or to just be unresponsive. Rather, it involves being attentive and being aware of other’s feelings and needs, while keeping one’s own feelings in check.
The most important part of maintaining a poker face is to stay in control of your emotions. When faced with a difficult situation, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with emotions. However, this can become detrimental to whatever work you are doing, and it is important to remember to remain composed and focus on the matter at hand.
It is also important to remain aware of body language, as this can often give away what one is thinking. To ensure that your poker face remains in tact, keep an eye on your body language, and avoid using physical cues that may give a clue as to what you are feeling.
Finally, it is important to remember that a poker face can be a great way to show that you are a professional. It demonstrates a lack of bias and proves that you are capable of performing the task in a level-headed manner. Ultimately, the goal should always be to use a poker face to help you to remain professional and be able to successfully complete your task.