When – and How – to Keep a Poker Face at Work
When – and How – to Keep a Poker Face at Work

When – and How – to Keep a Poker Face at Work

Updated November 20, 2023

By Kenny Jarvis
Kenny Jarvis

A poker face can be a valuable tool that you can use in many work environments such as negotiations and high-pressured environments. This unique social skill can not only get you ahead but make you appear more authoritative and confident.

Here, you will learn how to master the poker face and when you should be using it.

Even if you've never played the game in your life, everyone has heard of a poker face.

This common term has long transcended the card game and has become known as a valuable social skill. While useful during betting in high-stakes games, it can also give you a huge advantage in the workplace.

But why is a poker face important and in what situations can it be useful?

Not only will those questions be answered here, but you’ll also get you some tips on how you can perfectly execute a poker face.

Let's get started!

What Is a Poker Face?

What is a poker face? Well, rather unsurprisingly, it’s a term that comes from the card game of poker.

In the game, not having facial expressions of emotions is vital. It stops other players from seeing if you’re excited or frustrated with the cards you have, or anxious about a potential big win.

If you did show facial expressions of emotions, then an opponent would have a much better chance of predicting your cards, and therefore a better chance of beating you.

Great poker players need to learn the art of keeping a straight face, or poker face expression.

While it may have a history in cards, the term has long stopped being only associated with the game of poker.

The poker face definition has now become broader, as it is now used in any situation where having neutral facial expression emotions is an advantage.

There are a wide number of scenarios where this can be important, including in the workplace. Read on to delve deeper into what poker face is about.

The Concept of Poker Face

The concept of a poker face expression is all about not giving away any external clues about your thoughts, emotions, or intentions.

It prevents others from knowing what you're thinking and therefore allows you to keep greater control of the situation.

There are a variety of situations in which someone may try to take advantage of you if you were excited or angry, for example.

Knowing how to keep a poker face takes this power away from them and helps to give you an element of mystery.

Application of Poker Face

Now that you know the answer to what a poker face is, where can it be used?

Perhaps the best example of where a poker face can be an advantage is in negotiations. This could be any type of negotiation such as a business deal or negotiating salary.

Staying neutral will prevent the other party from gauging your level of interest or excitement.

It’s this ambiguity that you can use to your advantage.

For example, if you show huge excitement at an initial offer, then this weakens your position to ask for more. The other party may feel you will accept their first offer as you’ve already shown a keen interest.

This will be discussed in more detail later, but there are many other job-related scenarios where a poker face can be useful, such as performance reviews.

Not only can a poker face be helpful in negotiations, but it can also convey professionalism and confidence.

You can also use these skills to respond to cope with negative emotions. An example would be before you need to give a presentation. Learning to expertly deploy your poker face can prevent you from looking anxious and will increase your credibility.

Of course, it’s not just about negative emotions, either. An example here would be that you’ve been told of a promotion in a group setting. Celebrating here could be seen as arrogant, selfish, and unprofessional. A poker face helps to keep your composure and show authority.

Simply put, the poker face is a valuable social skill that can be important in many areas of your life. It will teach you to manage your expressions and present a neutral front.

Let’s now look into more detail about how a poker face can be valuable in different areas of our lives.

Why Use a Poker Face?

Workplaces can be political environments and not being able to keep your emotions in check can lead to a lack of respect and aggravating the wrong people.

Here are some key reasons why deploying a poker face can be advantageous.

Emotional Control

Perhaps the biggest reason for using a poker face is that it helps to conceal your decisions.

In the workplace, being overly emotional can sometimes hinder clear decision making and communication. Keeping your emotions hidden gives you greater control.

Not only does a poker face make it appear that you have emotional control from the outside, it can also help to keep you calm on the inside too.

Learning emotional discipline will allow you to think more rationally and clearly in high-pressure environments.

Strategic Advantage

As mentioned previously, a poker face will give you a strategic advantage when faced with negotiations.

When others can’t read your emotions, they won’t be able to get the upper hand and control the narrative.

You can use this advantage to not be pushed around and ensure that you get the best possible deal for yourself. It can also help when you need to deal with difficult colleagues or clients.

Enhanced Professionalism

Being able to control your emotions simply exudes professionalism. It gives a message to anyone present that you are composed and don’t get too emotional under pressure.

Not only do you appear professional, but also confident.

For those in the lower levels of the organization, this can show that you are future management material and someone to be relied upon.

In the higher levels of the organization, it shows that you are a reliable and mature leader.

Balanced Approach

Having a poker face is not just about being able to control your facial expression but when you practice it enough, it allows you to better control your internal emotions.

This can give you a more balanced approach to work challenges.

This balanced approach will allow you to analyze situations more objectively and consider various factors, rather than jumping to conclusions.

Keeping those emotions in check allows you to make decisions based on logic and information.

Conflict Management

Conflict is a natural part of the workforce, and there will always be times when people disagree.

While that’s true, how it is handled can severely impact team dynamics and productivity.

A poker face can be an excellent tool to diffuse tensions. It will allow you to stay calm before making rational judgments.

Not only that, but a poker face will also show that you're not taking sides which can lead to a more positive resolution.

When – and How – to Keep a Poker Face at Work
When – and How – to Keep a Poker Face at Work

Leadership and Influence

For those in leadership positions, a poker face becomes essential.

In a high pressure situation, if someone looks your way and you appear composed, you’ll inspire confidence. They’ll have faith in your ability to make tough decisions and provide direction.

In any situation, a leader is often the one who appears the most in control and helps to provide a secure environment. If you hope to be a leader in the future, practicing your poker face can be a great idea.

Situations That Call for a Poker Face

You’ve learned how a poker face can be an advantage but in what specific situations is it best used?

These strategic skills can be a potent weapon when used in the right way.

Let's explore the situations that call for a poker face in the workplace:

High-Pressure Situations

Whatever line of work you're in, there are always going to be high-pressure situations.

Whether deadlines need to be met, you're on the brink of a huge sale or in the midst of a workplace disaster, cool heads are often needed.

Knowing how to keep a poker face can be crucial. It will show others that you can handle adversity without ever being overwhelmed.

This will help to reassure others and help everyone to focus on finding solutions rather than panicking.

Negotiations and Decision-Making

It’s been mentioned a few times already, but a poker face can be an incredible tool in negotiations.

Many find the likes of negotiating salary, business deals or compensation anxiety-inducing, but a poker face will demonstrate confidence and show you’re not a pushover.

When the stakes are high in negotiations, your ability to stay composed will often have a significant effect on the outcome.

A brilliant focus will make you calm inside and out and help to give you the upper hand in any negotiation.

Leadership and Authority

Want to be respected and admired as a leader? If so, you’ll need an excellent poker face.

Keeping a poker face in challenging situations will inspire confidence in your leadership.

You’ll look like you’re the one in control and capable of leading them through difficulties.

This can have a significant impact on team morale.

In uncertain times, many people want someone to turn to and take control. A poker face can prevent unnecessary panic and maintain a sense of calm.

How to Make a Poker Face

Now you’ve heard why the poker face can be so effective, you’re probably ready to learn how to have a poker face.

It takes some time, patience, and self-awareness, but here are some effective tips to help you master the art of the poker face.

Step 1. Prepare Pre-Planned Questions

Preparation is always a great way to lower your anxiety and be in control of various situations.

One thing you can do is think of pre-planned questions that you can ask, which can either buy you time or make you look in control.

For example, a question such as, "Help me understand how you arrived at this thought" is perfect for shifting the focus back to them.

"How have you arrived at this decision?" is a similar question that can allow you more time to think during negotiations.

Step 2. Use a Mantra

Choose a mantra or a phrase that you use as a reminder to maintain your poker face and composure. This could be your own phrase, a famous quote, or even singing your favorite song lyrics.

What this mantra does is give you a grounding for emotions that pull you back in control and remind you to focus on logic.

Step 3. Visualize

When thinking about how to have a poker face, another great trick is to keep a pleasant image in your mind.

It’s generally more effective if you use something from your memory rather than a creation. You can then summon this image to give you a sense of calm.

This could be a beautiful sunset, a picture of a family member who always gives you sound advice, or a cherished memory. It can help you to regain your composure and keep that poker face.

Step 4. Force a Smile

Okay, this is a bit of a contradiction, as a smile is showing emotion. However, a poker face is sometimes about giving the impression that everything is okay, even when it’s not.

The act of smiling can not only have a positive impact on your emotional state but also on those around you. It can help to diffuse tense situations and stay calm under pressure.

Step 5. Bite Your Tongue

Not talking metaphorically here – the advice is that you should literally bite your tongue. You want to do it hard enough to cause a little pain and discomfort but obviously not too hard that it causes any harm.

It can be important for both negative and positive emotions. In negative scenarios, it can give you a little time to think before you speak with raw emotion.

In positive scenarios, this little jolt of pain can stop you from getting excited and stop you smiling in inappropriate situations.

Step 6. Body Language

In poker, even with a poker face, players may have physical tells which can give their emotions away. This could be having closed body language, covering their mouth, or nervously tapping their feet.

You should pay attention to what the rest of your body is doing so you’re not showcasing motion away from your face.

You should also get into the habit of trying to read the body language of others, as this can give you valuable information.

Step 7. Breathing Techniques

Rapid breathing is a sign of anxiety and stress. It’s wise to practice deep and controlled breathing techniques to stay calm.

While this is effective mentally, it can also reduce any physical signs of nervousness.

Step 8. Get Adequate Rest

Everything is more difficult when you’re tired. Not only is it harder to make clear decisions but it’s also tricky to regulate your emotions.

If you know that you have a big day ahead of you, then try to get as much sleep as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

Maintaining a poker face at work involves controlling your facial expressions and body language to avoid revealing your thoughts or emotions. This skill is useful during negotiations, confrontations, or any situation requiring neutrality. Practice mindfulness to become aware of involuntary reactions. Deep, steady breathing can also help you stay calm and composed.

Keeping a poker face involves emotional and physical discipline. Be aware of your facial expressions, eye movements, and other body language that might give away your feelings. Practice in front of a mirror, focusing on neutral expressions. In emotionally charged situations, take deep breaths to maintain your composure.

A poker face is a neutral facial expression that reveals no emotion or reaction. The eyes are usually steady, the mouth is closed or slightly open but relaxed, and other facial muscles are disengaged. The aim is to appear unreadable, masking any feelings or intentions you may have.

A poker face is an expressionless countenance that hides one's true feelings, thoughts, or intentions. The term originates from the game of poker, where players hide their emotions to deceive opponents about the strength of their hand. In broader contexts, a poker face helps in maintaining neutrality or secrecy in various situations.

A bad poker face is one that fails to hide emotions, thoughts, or intentions effectively. In this case, facial expressions, eye movements, or other forms of body language inadvertently reveal what the person is feeling or thinking, thus negating the purpose of maintaining a poker face.

The term 'poker face' primarily refers to the act of keeping a neutral, emotionless facial expression to deceive or mislead others, especially in high-stakes situations like poker games.

It has been popularized and extended to various scenarios outside of poker, such as business negotiations, diplomacy, and personal interactions, where revealing one's true feelings or intentions may be disadvantageous.

Developing a poker face involves both mental and physical training. Mentally, you need to cultivate emotional regulation and self-awareness to prevent your feelings from surfacing involuntarily. Physically, practice maintaining a neutral facial expression in the mirror. Pay attention to potential "tells" like eye movements or lip twitches and work on eliminating them. Role-playing different scenarios can also be beneficial.

If you can navigate emotionally charged or strategic situations without others being able to gauge your thoughts or feelings, you likely have a good poker face. You can test this by engaging in activities like poker where a neutral expression is beneficial or asking trusted colleagues or friends for feedback.

Practice makes perfect. Start by observing yourself in a mirror and maintaining a neutral expression. Try to induce different emotions and keep your face unchanged. Role-playing can help simulate real-world scenarios. Another method is video recording yourself discussing various subjects to spot any involuntary facial movements that need control.

A poker face can be advantageous in various work situations, such as negotiations, disciplinary actions, or sensitive discussions where emotional neutrality is important. It helps you maintain professional composure, making it easier to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics without revealing your hand prematurely.

Some people are naturally poker-faced due to their inherent temperament, emotional regulation skills, or past experiences that have conditioned them to be less expressive. Certain cultures that value stoicism and emotional restraint may also contribute to a naturally poker-faced demeanor.

Having a poker face can be both an asset and a liability. On the positive side, it can help in negotiation, strategy, and conflict resolution by keeping your intentions and feelings concealed.

However, it might also be seen as deceptive or insincere, which can be detrimental in personal relationships where emotional openness is valued. Like any skill, the effectiveness of a poker face depends on how and when it's used.

Final Thoughts

If you want to be a picture of calm and composure in highly stressful and pressurized situations, perfecting your poker face can be a valuable tool. Not only will it make you appear calmer on the outside, but it will give you internal clarity too.

There are going to be many situations when a poker face is going to be beneficial. You can practice using the tips above, and you’ll soon be able to approach challenging situations with a lot more confidence and composure.

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