How to Get a Poker Face at Work

how to get a poker face at work - image of lady gagaHave you ever worried that your face gives away your thoughts every time? Putting on a poker face is always a good skill to have, but especially with performance reviews (and bonus season) coming up, now is a great time to ponder how to get a poker face at work. Here’s Reader K’s question:

A mentor of mine said one of my best qualities is that I’m genuine; however, I was told that resulted in being easily read and having zero poker face. If people can read me, they know how and where to hit, which isn’t good. How can I develop a poker face and be less easily read?

Good question, K, and I can’t wait to hear what the readers say. I also have a face that is far too easily read, but here are a few ideas on how to get a poker face at work (and beyond):

Pictured: Lady Gaga / Poker Face.

  • Sing a silly song in your head to offset strong emotions. A male friend told me years ago that he sang the MacGyver theme song to himself whenever he was about to cry, and that stuck with me. (Pssst: Here’s our last discussion on crying at work.)
  • Learn a bit about body language, because it can work with or against your facial expressions. If your face falls when you feel defeat, and then your body language follows (perhaps by slumping, crossing your arms or legs to protect yourself, etc.), the internal emotion only becomes stronger. If you feel defeat and you force your body language to do the opposite of your emotion (such as sitting up straighter, maybe even forcing a smile), then at the very least, whoever is in the room with you will be confused.
  • Cover your tells, physically if you have to — for example, rub your forehead or fake a cough or sneeze.
  • Take some lessons from media training, as shared by a commenter on Ask a Manager when they had an open thread on this topic. He or she noted to “relax your eyebrows to their natural resting position and take your tongue away from the roof of your mouth (it tends to go right there when you’re holding something back — it’s a physical response). This automatically relaxes your face and neutralizes your expression,” and also recommended carrying a small object you can discreetly touch to “center” you, such as a coin in your pocket.
  • Have a safe, neutral, go-to phrase. In one of my favorite movies, Joe Versus the Volcano, one of Meg Ryan’s characters blankly says, “I have no response to that,” whenever she’s confronted with something she doesn’t necessarily understand. The character isn’t really a great role model, per se — and you probably shouldn’t use it as often as she does in the two days Joe knows her character — but I’ve always taken power from the fact that it’s a valid response. You don’t owe anyone more than that. Other options here might be, “Tell me more about your thoughts on ____,” while you gather your own thoughts, or asking a question involving logistics or facts.

Readers: If you consider yourself to have a good poker face, what are your best tips? For those of you who had to develop a poker face, what’s your advice? 

Social media image credit: Shutterstock / Photographee.euhow to get a good poker face at work

Nothing's worse in a business situation than feeling like your face betrays EVERY thought! A reader wondered how to get a poker face at work -- so we rounded up some tips from body language to mental hacks. What are your best tips on how to get a poker face at work? Come join the discussion.


  1. This is a great post for me. I have a “glass face” (as Jamie says about Claire in Outlander….you can see everything I’m thinking) and it’s really troublesome sometimes.

  2. I’ll be following this post… definitely a challenge of mine. With that being said, I absolutely loathe the fact that I need to be on guard against people taking hits at me. This should not be acceptable in the adult world :\

  3. I would really like to train myself somehow to have fewer physical reactions to receiving criticism. Even if I rationally know that something isn’t a big deal or it’s an accurate or necessary critique, my physical reaction is to want to cry and that’s not good at all.

    • Anonymous :

      That’s my reaction too and it’s horrible at work! My natural instinct when I feel angry is to cry too.

  4. lost academic :

    Anyone have advice for those of us who cry at the drop of a hat? It’s a family thing, it seems, but it’s terribly embarrassing at work and I don’t have any good strategies for preventing it. Anyone else similarly afflicted but has at least partially solved the problem?

    • Anonymous :

      I read somewhere that if you squeeze your thumb and index finger together when you feel tears coming on it will stop you from crying. It obviously doesn’t work once you’re already sobbing, but I have found it to work in situations where I’m feeling choked up or emotional.

    • Looking up helps a bit.

    • Anonymous :

      When I’m in a situation where I think I might be feeling strong emotions at work, I carry a water bottle, and take a sip whenever the tears threaten. I’ve found it to be the best way to stop the tears.

    • clearing your throat while looking up helps. the last time i cried at work i found little bruises all over my arms/hands where i pinched myself to stop crying (did not work).

    • Okay, I know this one is weird – but one my work girl friends use and have spread around is – squeeze your butt cheeks together. Yep. Do it. It’s just distracting enough to get you into your body and out of your head when you need to, and helps slow down those thoughts that will lead to tears. (alternatively, I’ve also tried counting my toes and attempting to wiggle each one. But squeezing your butt cheeks is easier to remember under pressure.)

  5. I recite something or think through a process to get my mind off it. It used to be a chocolate chip cookie recipe, where I would have to remember each of the ingredients, mentally measure them out, and envision the process of mixing it together. Now, I’ve switched to mentally reciting the poem Jabberwocky because it’s nonsensical enough that it requires focus, but familiar enough to be comforting.

  6. Odd Suggestion, but Worked :

    So, I used to be a cry at the drop of a hat/get flustered and frustrated/glass face person and then I started taking boxing classes (not kickboxing, but boxing boxing–though my studio offers non-contact classes) and it’s amazing. I have a face and demeanor that my mentor says “can tell someone where to sit” and it’s 10000% due to the fact that I know that I am (1) super strong, (2) super tough, and (3) can beat you up.

    Sounds silly, but the more I train heavy weights and boxing, the more I legitimately believe I’m so tough, you couldn’t crack me. Of course, I’m super soft at home, haha, so no personality changes, just lots of amazing confidence building. Also, if you’re in a high-pressure job, boxing is THE BEST, most cathartic thing ever.

    • Anonymous :

      This used to be me. Then my (now-ex) boyfriend held me up against the wall by my throat. I’ve never been able to get this confidence back.

  7. tech worker :

    My current manager gave me a great tip – you can often say “I’ll take that into consideration” or “let me take that into consideration” to diffuse an argument & move on. It shows the other person some respect without acquiescing completely, & it gives you an out from a heated moment.

  8. Anonymous :

    I can control my facial expressions just fine- totally blank slate effect. But- if confronted with something unexpected (good or bad) I often turn sheet-white/grayish with a blood pressure drop, and can come close to fainting. I can control it to the point where I haven’t passed out in around 15 years (I’m 39). But the visual change in my face color is startling and people will often comment, ask if I’m ill, do I need to sit down, etc.

  9. Anonymous :

    Does anyone have any tips for becoming aware of what your “tells” are? I’m happy to block them/account for them but I don’t know what gives me away!!

  10. Traveller :

    Non-committal comments:
    “I see where you are coming from.”
    “I understand what you are saying”

  11. Maybe an acting or improv class would help with making one more aware of one’s facial expressions, how to manipulate face & body language, and what effect facial gestures have on a partner or audience.

  12. Practice. I learned from my judge when I was clerking that a blank look is incredibly useful. I eventually mastered it. I shift my face to neutral when I need to and just wait out whatever craziness is happening.

  13. When I was about to cry one time, someone told me to breathe through my nose. It worked. Don’t know if that was it, or if the statement just distracted me enough.

  14. Linda Lynn :

    botox helps alot

  15. Vanessa Van Edwards* has some great online courses out there on body language**. Mostly about being watchful for it in others, but you’ll learn some of tips on (partially) hiding it yourself.

    A smattering of tips I’ve picked up: The “tell” of a fake smile is the lack of crinkling around the eyes. (Botox in the crow’s feet area might make your genuine smiles appear fake. However, it doesn’t help with the flaring nostrils from anger.) Steeple your hands when nervous – it makes your appear/feel more confident/thoughtful, without appearing aggressive. Same with holding a newspaper. Do a triple head nod when you want someone to keep talking.

    *There are probably others out there, but the ones I’ve found are (former?) pickup artist types.

    **Caveat: does not work with people that can actually read your microexpressions, though I suspect these people are few and far between in real life. If they are the person delivering the bad news, the odds are higher that they are not staring at your face when they do so, unless they enjoy being the person delivering bad news.

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