Keeping a poker face doesn’t necessarily mean repressing 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 article, the author explains when to put on a poker face or not, and offers practical strategies to interrupt your inner rash. The better you can self-regulate, the easier it will be to express your emotions in a way that you are proud of.
Jude, the COO of a digital banking company, was the kind of leader everyone loved. Friendly and welcoming, he had a knack for connecting with others and inspiring confidence in his team. But as an emotional person (or what I call a sensitive fighter), Jude often carried her heart in her hand. She found it difficult to hide her emotions from him at inopportune times, and his facial expressions often revealed his true feelings. — even if it didn’t serve him or the others.
Jude once told me about a particularly tense client meeting in which his emotions and caring nature got the best of him. As COO, Jude had been called in to intervene after a series of conflicts occurred between the client and Jude’s frontline team.
As Jude began to lay out a plan to get the project back on track, the client interrupted him, peppering 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 for answers and strong rebuttals. Jude felt embarrassed that he had lost his cool and realized that, as a leader, he would inevitably face future situations that required him to maintain a poker face.
As an executive coach of highly sensitive professionals, I have witnessed firsthand how a leader’s insight and attunement with others can revive morale, inspire confidence, and create a positive work environment. After all, emotions are undoubtedly an important leadership tool. Joy, excitement, and excitement can lead to increased motivation, while camaraderie and connection can boost collaboration.
But these same deeply-feeling professionals often ask me, “How do I keep a poker face?” The most skilled leaders recognize that while showing your feelings can be beneficial most of the time, there are certain situations where 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 great challenge.
Keeping a poker face doesn’t necessarily mean repressing 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. This is how you do it.
Select situations wisely.
A poker face is not suitable for all situations, nor should it be a consistent form of communication. Hide too much, too often can make you appear less trustworthy, competent, and personable. Often in leadership, your team, colleagues, and clients need to see how you react in order to feel psychologically safe and 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, wearing a poker face can come off as insincere or disinterested, while if you’re negotiating, it can be to your advantage in protecting your position.
- What is my role in the interaction? For example, if you’re running a meeting, you might want to show more confidence and assertiveness, while if you’re a participant, you might want to show more openness and responsiveness.
- How appropriate is it for me to show vulnerability in this context? Consider whether the situation calls for a more cautious approach or whether it is appropriate to be more open, along with your personal style and what feels most authentic to you.
- What are the standards of the people or organizations I communicate with? Different cultures and groups have different expectations around the expression of emotions. Adjust your behavior accordingly.
Identify your stories.
In the game of poker, a tip is a slight change in behavior that can reveal whether you have a good hand or a bad one. Identifying your cues, the physical or behavioral cues that reveal your emotions or intentions, can be helpful in helping you control your response and maintain a poker face in appropriate situations.
As you interact with people throughout the day, observe yourself in different contexts. Take note of any patterns that come up when you are calm and when you feel nervous, worried, angry, or stressed. Perhaps he runs his fingers through his hair, sways or sways in his chair, or avoids eye contact. One of the things that I have long worked to curb is my tendency to bite my nails when I feel like I’m under pressure.
If possible, film yourself in different situations and review the footage for clues. You can also ask a trusted mentor or colleague to mirror patterns they have seen that you are not aware of.
Be aware of your body language.
When you choose to wear a poker face, you don’t want to appear like a cold, stoic statue. You will 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 to soften your gaze as well. If you feel tense or anxious, you may inadvertently squint or stare at something, so try to focus on a point in the distance to relax your eye muscles.
Keeping a poker face means watching your tone of voice. Speak low and slow. Slow down your speech, which can speed up if you are angry or fearful. Speak from your diaphragm (your lower abdomen) to produce a deeper, more resonant voice. Find neutral phrases that move the conversation forward but don’t give away your position, like “that’s interesting” or “help me understand…”
Stop your inner rash.
The better you can self-regulate, the easier it will be to express your emotions in a way that you are proud of. You can practice responding, not reacting, with simple tools to calm your nervous system:
- Grounding Techniques: Count backwards from 100, identify five things in the room that are a certain color, or squeeze and release the muscles.
- Display: Imagine a calm and relaxing scene, such as a beach or a forest, and try to imagine yourself in that environment.
- Cold Exposure: Hold a glass of ice water, suck on an ice cube, or splash cold water on your face.
Remember, having a poker face does not mean suppressing your emotions or being robotic. It’s all about being aware of your facial expressions and body language to communicate effectively and achieve your goals. Trust in your ability to stay cool, calm, and collected no matter what challenges come your way.