MBA Career Advice: How to Deal with a Poker Face in an Interview

In this weekly series, “MBA Career Advice,” our friends at MBA Career Coaches will be dispensing invaluable advice to help you actively manage your career. Topics include building your network, learning from mistakes and setbacks, perfecting your written communication, and mastering even the toughest interviews. This week, we address how to deal with a poker face in an interview. 

MBA Career Advice: How to Deal with a Poker Face in an Interview - mbaMissionYou know that feeling – an interviewer staring at you like an unblinking goldfish while you spill your guts about a crushing professional setback and enthuse about your greatest leadership experiences. Sometimes it can be hard to read people and that can be especially true in interviews. Even if your interviewer hasn’t made a conscious choice to suppress emotion, the face of a stranger can send confusing signals, which you may feel compelled to analyze in real time.

If you think back to your own interview experiences, you might say that the hardest part is figuring out how well you are doing. The best tip we have for how to interpret an interviewer’s poker face is really simple: don’t do it. This is not to say you shouldn’t be sensitive to your interviewers tone and questions; it just means that if you spend energy trying to figure out specifically what they mean, you will be distracting yourself from your only real job in that interview: communicating who you are and making a connection.

But there is an even more damaging consequence to the facial expression guessing game, and that is that it undermines your confidence. You know what we mean because we all have memories of talking about ourselves and then wondering where we stand with the listener. An interview is inherently evaluative, and people generally feel uncomfortable when they know they are being evaluated. You can probably remember a time when instead of focusing on the story you were telling, you were having a monologue in your head that went something like this:

“Uh oh, she didn’t smile when I made that joke. Did I offend her? Hmmm, maybe she just didn’t get it. This is not going well. And come to think of it, I forgot to mention the challenge of upward management in that leadership story a moment ago. Shoot, I am bombing this interview. Oh no, what is she writing? She’s still not smiling, she must hate me… I bet the last person nailed this question!”

This could go on and on but you get the idea. It’s important to recognize that having this conversation with yourself is more than a distraction, it is self-sabotage. If you are focused on what is going on in your head, you are not really present in the interview. This means your answers will feel dry and hollow, the interviewer will have a very hard time connecting with you as a person, and you will completely fail to project confidence and likeability.

If you find yourself distracted by the interviewer’s mood, there are two easy ways to reconnect with what you are saying:. The first is to concentrate on the emotion behind your story. Emotions have the valuable effect of bringing all your energy into the present moment. So if you are talking about the time you helped the team resolve a challenging conflict of interest, then as you are speaking, remember how you felt in that experience. Were you afraid at first? Did you lose hope at any moment? How did you rally the courage to press through the conflict? Let these feelings be part of the telling of the story. Whether you mention them as part of the conversation or not, remembering them as you tell the story will bring your focus back to what you are saying.

The second way to do it is to hone in on vivid details. As you talk about delivering that client presentation that saved the day, see if you can include one or two details that make the scene very real to you and the interviewer. For example: “We were all sitting in silence around the table for what felt like eternity. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. All the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up when I got up to present the new project plan.” This is not a literary device. It is a way to make the story very real for yourself as you tell it so that you can keep speaking with enthusiasm and energy no matter what is happening on the face of your interviewer. It has the added benefit of enabling the interviewer to really picture the scene, and therefore relate more readily to you. This in turn makes it easy to foster a genuine connection with anyone you are speaking to.

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