Careful Communication Can Make The Holidays Great
Gathering with family is a time of celebration — but simmering conflict can ruin the night. Here’s a guide to a successful holiday dinner.
“When are you gonna hear what my mommy and daddy said? They had a fi … they were talking mean to each other.”
Working on my PhD in Communication, I spent 16 weeks with research that sprang from the recorded dinnertime conversations of a few dozen families. They’d invited cameras and microphones into their homes to observe everything that happened from before dinner time until the youngest child went to bed — and the things we got to see and hear were surprisingly candid.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about five year old Janie, who came to the front yard to tell the research team her concerns about the fight her parents had had over the evening meal. Today — 25 years later — I’ve been especially thinking about what 30 year old Janie’s Thanksgiving dinner might look like with her family.
The holidays are prime opportunity for conflict. Kids have grown older and started families of their own — often moving far away in the process. When everyone comes back together to repeat decades-long traditions, it can become apparent just how much they’ve each changed since living under the same roof. Layer in the stress of the pandemic, the fallout of feelings from a bitterly-fought election, and the heightened expectation for a “picture-card holiday,” and dining rooms across the country are tinder boxes for “talking mean to each other.”
Some family members may decide not to attend a holiday meal because it doesn’t feel safe — emotionally or physically — to see relatives. COVID safety precautions are another reason that many may be skipping the family get-together this year.
But If you’re going to see family this holiday and want to avoid the drama, here are some communication tips to get you through the event.
1. Calibrate your expectations.
Regardless of how you feel about them individually, try to appreciate your family for who they are and enjoy them where they’re at — not where you want them to be. Long-simmering disputes aren’t going to be solved over the holiday table — those are better meant for a therapist’s office. Certainly you see something positive in your relatives, or you wouldn’t be visiting at all.
2. Prepare a list of “safe” conversation topics in advance.
You know what’s going to set people off — and what they’ll love to hear. Before the big day, think of three updates from your life you can share at different points of the night. Also make a mental list of questions you can ask each family member that will get them talking on a neutral ground. When things get difficult, change the subject with one of these nuggets.
3. Plan on how you’ll respond to taboo topics.
You know that uncle Eddie can’t help himself, and is bound to try to bring up how terribly your sister is raising her kids. Have a set of responses ready to shut it down — “we aren’t talking about that today,” or “I’d rather talk about something else.” Practice saying these words out loud, followed by one of your “safe” conversation prompts, so they’ll feel natural when you need them.
4. Monitor your alcohol intake.
Many celebrations include cocktails and wine — but try not to overdo it. “What sobriety conceals, drunkenness reveals” is a truism — so help keep conversation on a positive track by watching what you drink.
5. Have an exit plan.
Whether it’s taking the dog for a quick walk around the block or ducking out to grab something from the corner store, putting some physical distance between you and your relatives can be a great opportunity to relax and re-set the tone. Be ready with a few pre-planned reasons to call it a night, too– a long drive home, or a plumber who is coming early the next morning — so that you can help end the day before things devolve too much.
Family gatherings can bring nostalgic memories of the past and are an opportunity enjoy and celebrate one another. But they can also surface long-held pains that won’t be resolved in an hour. With careful planning, you can keep your conversation on track — enjoying the best, while leaving the rest.