How to Keep Your Poker Face

Posted 04.03.2019

Are you the kind of person whose facial expressions reveal everything you’re thinking? My wife, Diane, tells me I’m one of those people. Of course, she does have several decades of experience in reading me. I like to think I have a little more of a poker face when I’m with other people – especially if it’s a challenging or frustrating interaction. But, in all likelihood, I’m kidding myself on that.

And, I suspect I have a lot of company on the poker face front. I’ve coached a lot of people (including myself) over the years on how to show up in meetings and conversations in ways that are productive for everyone involved. Doing that successfully almost always requires some level of mindfulness. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll define that as possessing two particular qualities – awareness and intention.

The awareness works in two domains – the external and the internal. To keep a poker face and not betray your emotions in non-productive ways, you have to be aware of what’s going on around you and what’s going on inside of you. The “around you” awareness is focused on everything that’s going on in your immediate environment and paying special attention to the words or actions that are triggers for you.

If you stop and reflect for a few moments, you can likely identify topics, people or actions that are pretty much guaranteed to set you off. They’re the kinds of things that cause you to make a face, change the tone of your voice or say something that you’ll probably regret later. That’s the beginning of raising your internal awareness of how you react in physiological ways to your triggers. What’s the first thing you feel in your body when you’re confronted by the trigger? Is it a tingle, a tightness, a flush, a surge? When you tune into your initial physiological reaction to a trigger, you can use that as an early warning system for when you’re in danger of losing your poker face.

That’s where intention comes in. Your first intention should be to lengthen the gap between the stimulus (your trigger) and your reaction. By lengthening the gap, you can give yourself space to compose yourself and create a picture of how you want to respond (as opposed to react).

I recently heard a brilliant example of how to do that in real life from a leader (whom I’ll call Susan) who was a participant in our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program. Susan received colleague feedback that she didn’t have much of a poker face. When she heard something that she didn’t like or agree with in a meeting, her facial expressions and body language pretty much telegraphed what she was thinking. That can tend to either shut other people down or wind them up. Either way, it’s usually not very productive.

When Susan decided to take her poker face on as a development opportunity, she asked some trusted colleagues for ideas on simple steps she could take to be better at not letting her facial expressions throw things off track during challenging conversations. One of the action step ideas she got was so simple it’s brilliant.

Using her external and internal awareness, whenever Susan feels that first little physiological twinge after a trigger she drops her gaze to the table and starts taking notes. Sometimes she doesn’t even take notes, she doodles. What goes on the paper isn’t the point. The point is by looking down at the table, she creates time to compose herself and think about what she wants to say or do next and how she wants to do it in terms of the energy she expresses through her face, body language and tone of voice. As soon as she started her “take notes when triggered” approach Susan immediately noticed changes in the way she engaged with people and the way they engaged with her in response.

The results she was getting at work were so positive that she started using a similar approach at home when her teenage daughter came into the kitchen to talk with her. If Susan felt herself getting a little tense, that was her cue to look down and clean the counter while continuing the conversation. That gave her space to listen, process and then respond. In addition to having much cleaner counters, Susan reported that she felt much more connected with what was going on in her daughter’s life.

Susan’s “take notes” and “clean the counter” moves are great examples of actions that are relatively easy to do that have made a big difference in helping her keep her poker face. They help her manage the gap between her stimulus and response. Her technique may not work in an actual poker game since looking down at the table would be her “tell,” but it works great at work and at home. Unless you’re playing poker for a living, Susan’s answer to how to keep a poker face might work for you as well.

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