How To Enjoy Holiday Dinner Conversations

Holiday Dinner by Lilly Cantabile
Holiday Dinner by Lilly Cantabile

The holiday season is approaching, awakening a variety of emotions. During the holidays we tend to emphasize spending time with family and friends. This can be both joyful and draining, sometimes simultaneously. Holiday dinner conversations can bring out family warmth and/or conflict.  

You may be hosting get-togethers of family and friends or you may be attending these gatherings. Read on for ideas and suggestions, whether you plan to be in either or both roles during the holidays. For many of us, being with a group of friends often seems easier, with less potential for arguments and ruffled feathers. This makes sense because we get to choose our friends and it is usually easier to disconnect from them, compared to family. Although this post is primarily concerned with family gatherings, some of these suggestions could apply to any type of small to mid-sized get-togethers.

Consider Your Own Expectations and Intent 

Whether you are the host or an attendee to a family party, it is important to consider your own intent and expectations. You may be primarily wanting to celebrate, enjoy, and have a pleasantly memorable time with your family. On the other hand you may have a burning to desire to have spirited discussions about subjects you know to be controversial within your family, want to share news about yourself or views you have that may have a mixed reception, or see this as an opportunity to “help” a family member with a problem or issue you believe they have yet to handle in a satisfactory manner. Of course, you may have some of both types of expectations and intents.  

My view is that family holiday dinners and gatherings should be celebrations of our mutual connections, not forums for debating issues that are likely to be controversial. It is not the place to counsel your sister concerning the unwise and self-sabotaging choices you feel she has been making or to try to change your brother’s ridiculous and dangerous political views. It is a time to focus on what you enjoy and appreciate about each other and engage in mutually fun and satisfying activities. Since everybody likes to eat and many family dinners offer wide choices of food where everyone is likely to be satisfied, these type of family functions already have a built-in enjoyable communal centerpiece. It may also be helpful that it’s hard to talk with your mouth full. 

I am not saying that there is never a time and place to have the second type of interactions with family members. You may have significant concerns about a family member’s behavior and choices. Approaching them individually after you have reinforced your connection with them at a family gathering is likely to have greater impact. You might arrange one-to-one time with them, perhaps over dinner or during/after some activity like tennis, shopping, or a movie. If you live far apart, arranging for an extended phone call might be best. (As a side note, I strongly recommend not to air your concerns on social media.) However, realize that some changes take time and repeated discussions may be needed. I’d recommend that you first engage your relative by thoroughly listening as openly as possible and at length to their views about the situation before offering your own advice or viewpoint. Our forthcoming book, Bringing Out The Best In Others, provides in-depth information about this and other communication skills. Still, I’d like you to think carefully about taking this step. You may decide that continuing your loving and supportive relationship with that person outweighs the risk of seriously damaging the relationship by bringing up your concerns about her behaviors or airing potentially controversial views.  

For The Host

Even if you agree with me that family holiday time should be filled with celebration and sharing, conflicts can come up. If you are part of a family where it is not uncommon for tense conversations to occur, you may want to set up some ground rules and let people know about them before the event. Consider the following:

  • If spirited political/religious discussions are likely to become uncomfortable for at least some family members, consider setting up a caucus room (with a door) as the only place that these types of discussions are allowed. People can come and go as they wish. Family members not interested in talking about politics can simply avoid the room.
  • As a host, you may want to talk with some or all family members before the celebration. If you feel the need, you may want to ask for suggestions and/or share your ground rules. My father loved to bring up politics and religion at family dinners, often dominating the conversation. When his older sister would host a family dinner, she directly told my father that she would not allow this. She also mentioned this to other family members that were coming. As a result, the conversations were pleasant and included everyone. 
  • The host can also explain the use of a talking implement, whether utilized in the caucus room or in other areas. For controversial conversations, a talking utensil, such as a turkey baster or Christmas ornament, might be used. The person holding the turkey baster is allowed to talk without interruption. When finished, the person passes the baster on to the next person desiring to talk. This procedure reminds others to listen to the speaker without interrupting. This only works when family members are willing to share the baster and not soliloquize until others start snoring or screaming. 
  • Strategic arrangement of seating placements at the dinner table can be helpful at times. If you know specific relatives tend to be argumentative, do not have them seated directly across from or next to each other.
  • What do you do about the relative that seems to love to stir things up with controversial and critical comments? If you have set up ground rules and they are being ignored and interaction becomes argumentative, you can request that they save the conversation for the caucus room. If you have not set up prior ground rules, use your authority as the host to request that this conversation be taken up after dinner. The host could also try to redirect the conversation, perhaps by telling a joke, asking people what they want for dessert, or any diversion you can think of.
  • Many families have structured activities such as sports, card games, board games, and charade-type games during family events. The more time people are engaged in these activities and enjoying each other, the less likelihood of conflict.
  • If excessive alcohol has been a contributing factor in past unpleasant family get-togethers, be mindful of the alcohol flow prior to and during dinner. The host may need to devise some way to control alcohol use, perhaps including this in the ground rules. Alcohol may have more dramatic effects with an empty stomach than a full stomach, so paying attention to the alcohol flow before dinner might be most important. 

For Those Attending

Some family members may become argumentative, make critical comments, or ask loaded questions despite everyone else’s attempt to keep the peace. Consider the following to help keep things from escalating to unpleasant exchanges. The first two points offer things you could do proactively, that might avoid conflict, while the remaining points cover ideas if the situation becomes challenging for you.

  

  • Use this family time to strengthen your connection with others. This often involves demonstrating you really care about them. Emphasizing areas of differences and disagreement seldom reinforces your bond with others.
  • Ask questions that reflect your interest in the person’s life and well-being. Elicit personal stories of what they and their immediate family have been up to since you last saw them. Talk about what you’ve been doing.
  • Ignore any “little digs” whenever possible. Responding will likely escalate things.
  • Arguing back and defending your position only adds fuel to the fire. Instead of focusing on the content, pay attention to the feelings and emotions being expressed. Acknowledging the feelings of the speaker can help them to feel understood and to calm down. You don’t need to agree with what the other person is saying but you can hear and identify what emotion they’re having. You might respond, “You sound angry to me. I understand that it must be infuriating to you.” or “I understand. It seems like you feel hurt.” Focusing on another’s feelings is not about facts or your opinions. When a person feels understood they are likely to calm down and lessen their argumentative or abrasive tone. 
  • If you feel you have to disagree with something, say it respectfully and move on. 
  • If some family members persist in talking about controversial social/political/religious issues, you might look for areas of mutual concern and distress and try to direct the focus of the conversation on these aspects. When people have significant differences about the causes and solutions to specific problems, they can often agree about their concern and worry about the issue in general. Remember, you can also excuse yourself to the bathroom when these types of conversations come up. 
  • Use your sense of humor. If things do get a bit over-the-top, think of the stories you can tell your friends.

Excellent additional suggestions concerning family conversations can be found at https://www.livingroomconversations.org/friends-and-family-guide/

We have just found a fun interactive bot that you can use to practice conversations with either your ultra liberal or conservative relatives. Try it out!

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