Three Steps for Collaborating When You Can’t Read Your Co-Worker’s Poker Face

Colored poker chips falling on a poker table

Do you have someone on your team who is stoic or hard to read? Maybe you can’t quite figure them out and have no idea what they think about workplace issues. Many life science professionals will have a co-worker with a “poker face” at some point in their career. It can be challenging to engage with someone who is extremely reserved or that chooses to withhold their thoughts and feelings. If you have a boss or manager with a poker face who in addition doesn’t communicate well, you might find yourself in a position where it’s difficult to reach performance goals and get feedback for improvement.

While it’s easy to focus on other people, take a moment to think about how you’re showing up at work. Are you an open book who tells everyone your thoughts? Or do you keep a lot to yourself and only contribute to the conversation when it’s absolutely necessary? Your reputation and perception will also influence how others act around you. After considering yourself, you can accurately reflect on your relationship with a co-worker who is hard to read. What’s behind your colleague’s indifferent nature? Here are three steps to collaborating when you can’t read your co-worker’s poker face.

Observe them

In the same way you took an honest look at yourself, observe your co-worker from afar. Notice their habits and tendencies. Do they seem to have a poker face with everyone? Or is it just with you? Often, people jump to conclusions and make judgments about others such as ‘they must not like me,’ ‘that person is too shy,’ ‘they are secretive,’ or ‘that person doesn’t want to help me.’ None of those judgments might be true. Your colleague could just be introverted or a deep thinker. Try to determine if being more reserved or taking more time to make decisions is part of your co-worker’s personality.   

Ask for feedback

After some observation in various environments, check in directly with your co-worker. Don’t engage in gossip by talking to everyone else except this colleague about what you think. When you can catch them one-on-one, ask for their opinion on a project you’re working on or some other topic you’d like to know about. This helps to show that you are interested in hearing more from them. In a lot of companies, many employees don’t feel like they have a voice or that others care about what they think. As a result, they keep many things to themselves. Let your colleague, who seems difficult to read, know that you would like to hear more from them about issues. Be sure to emphasize that you both don’t have to talk or collaborate with a large group of people (in case they are uncomfortable doing so).

Cultivate a relationship

If you are truly interested in improving your collaboration, teamwork, or communication with a co-worker who has a poker face, get to know them. Due to experience in toxic environments, many people are reluctant to be vocal or show their true self at work. They might not trust others in the organization out of fear. Ask your colleague to lunch or coffee to get to know them more. You could also send them information on topics they enjoy via email or instant message, which is a thoughtful gesture. Once you establish a relationship with someone, they are more inclined to open up to you.

When you can’t figure someone out on the job, or know what they’re thinking, it can lead to frustration. You might make assumptions or judgments that aren’t true, or be unable to reach your goals. First, observe your co-worker who has a poker face. After having an idea of their habits and tendencies, you can get a better understanding of their personality. Next, ask for their opinion on a key issue when you have some time with them one-on-one. Getting their feedback will give you even more insight into what they think. Finally, consider cultivating a relationship with them. How will you approach your colleague who’s hard to read?

Porschia Parker is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.

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