Maintaining a poker face does not mean suppressing your emotions 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 on how to stop your inner explosion. The better you can control yourself, the easier it is to express your emotions in a way that you feel proud of.
Jude, a chief operations officer of a digital banking company, is the kind of leader everyone loves. Kind and welcoming, he has a knack for connecting with others and inspiring confidence in his team. But as an emotional person (or what I call a sensitive striver), Jude always wore his heart on his sleeve. He finds it difficult to hide his emotions during inappropriate times, and his facial expressions often give away his true feelings. — even if it doesn’t serve him or anyone else.
Jude once told me about a particularly tense customer meeting where his emotions and cautious nature got the better of him. As COO, Jude was called in to intervene after a series of conflicts between the customer and Jude’s frontline team occurred.
As Jude begins to present a plan to turn the project around, the client interrupts him and tells him a lot of concerns and complaints. Jude tried to remain diplomatic and authoritative on the project, but his voice began to shake, his eyes wandered around the room, and he struggled to give answers and strong answers. Jude feels embarrassed that he lost his cool and realizes that, as a leader, he will inevitably run into future situations that require him to maintain a poker face.
As an executive coach of highly sensitive professionals, I have witnessed firsthand how a leader’s thoughtfulness and alignment with others can revive morale, inspire confidence, and create a positive work environment. After all, emotions are undoubtedly an important leadership tool. Happiness, enthusiasm, and excitement can lead to higher motivation, while camaraderie and connection foster collaboration.
But these same deep-feeling professionals often ask me, “How do I maintain a poker face?” The most skilled leaders realize that although most of the time it can be beneficial to show your feelings, there are some situations when releasing your raw, unfiltered emotions can backfire, as Jude. Whether it’s during a high-stakes meeting, a performance review, or any other workplace encounter, deliberately and carefully controlling how you express your reactions can be a major challenge.
Maintaining a poker face does not mean suppressing your emotions 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.
Choose situations wisely.
A poker face is not appropriate for every situation, nor should it be a consistent way of communicating. Hide too much, always can show you less reliable, 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 lay down a poker face? Ask yourself:
- How does expressing my emotions help or hinder my goals? If you’re trying to build relationships and relationships, using a poker face can come across as insincere or disinterested, while if you’re negotiating, it can be useful to defend your position.
- What is my role in the interaction? For example, if you are leading a meeting, you may appear more confident and honest, while if you are a participant, you may appear more open and receptive.
- 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 most authentic to you.
- What are the attitudes of the people or organizations I am talking to? Different cultures and groups have different expectations about expressing emotions. Adjust your behavior accordingly.
Know your words.
In the game of poker, a tell is a small change in behavior that can determine whether you are good or bad. Identifying your cues — the physical or behavioral cues that give away your emotions or intentions — can be useful in helping 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. Note any patterns that emerge when you are calm versus when you feel nervous, anxious, angry, or stressed. Maybe you’re running your fingers through your hair, fidgeting or rocking your chair, or avoiding eye contact. One long-standing saying that I’ve been working on controlling 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 find what was said. You can also ask a trusted teacher or colleague to review patterns they see that you don’t.
Think about your body language.
If you choose to use a poker face, you don’t want to appear like a cold, stoic statue. You will be more successful if your facial expressions remain warm. Take a few slow, deep breaths to calm your emotions, and imagine releasing all the tension from your face. That may involve loosening your jaw and moving your tongue away from the roof of your mouth. Also try softening your gaze. If you feel stressed or anxious, you may accidentally close your eyes or stare at something, so try to focus on a point in the distance to relax your eye muscles.
Keeping a poker face involves taking care of your tone of voice. Speak slowly and gently. Reduce your rate of speech, which may speed up when you are angry or scared. Speak from your diaphragm (your lower abdomen) to create a deeper and more resonant voice. Find a neutral phrase that gets the conversation going but doesn’t give away your position, like “that’s interesting” or “help me understand…”
Disrupt your inner explosion.
The better you can control yourself, the easier it is to express your emotions in a way that you feel proud of. You can practice responding, not reacting, using simple tools to calm your nervous system:
- Grounding techniques: Count backwards from 100, identify five objects in the room that are a certain color, or contract and release your muscles.
- Visualization: Visualize a peaceful, calming 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 your face with cold water.
Remember, having a poker face does not mean suppressing your emotions or being robotic. It’s about being mindful of your facial expressions and body language to effectively communicate and achieve your goals. Trust in your ability to stay cool, calm, and collected no matter what challenges come your way.