‘Tis the season of peace and goodwill to all – except maybe toward Uncle Abner when he starts his annual rant about politics or when childless Aunt June begins dispensing parenting advice while pointedly eyeing your toddler, who just threw a piece of biscuit across the room.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses their temper and what started as a festive gathering could end in tears, notably yours, unless you’re prepared! Ultimately, you can’t control other people’s behavior, but you can control your own, and that’s the whole ballgame.
Step 1: Accept that which you cannot change
Unless this is your first family dinner, you know who the people are who like to stir the pot. Odds are that they don’t recognize their behavior as being obnoxious, so you can’t really point out their attitude to them and expect a good result.
Instead, recognize that there are personalities in your family that you might not see eye to eye with and that’s okay. Managing your expectations is the key to not being upset or disappointed. After all, you can choose your friends based on personality and how well you get along, but your family are who they are, and you can’t control that.
Accept it. Don’t fight it. Don’t bemoan having to spend another dinner with Aunt Zelda, who likes to debate about the relative merits of nuclear power over the soup. Just accept it. You’ll find your time among them, and your dinner, a lot easier to swallow.
Step 2: Be prepared for attacks
One way that conversations can quickly derail is if you’re not ready for what someone is going to say to you. But if you know that Aunt June is going to criticize your parenting, you can be ready with soothing responses that either put an end to the critique or change the subject entirely. Practice this in your head before the dinner so that your responses flow naturally. There’s nothing like a one word answer followed by an awkward silence to put an end to a conversation.
Another option is to think up some ‘safe topics’ before the big day that can inspire conversation among your family members and their interests but that won’t raise any hackles!
Step 3: Don’t be an instigator
If you know that talking about certain presidents will lead to a fight with your in-laws, don’t do it. Avoiding hot button topics is the single best way to skip having an argument at the table. There’s a time and a place for honest to goodness debate, but the dining table during the holidays isn’t it. And if someone else starts up the fight, remember the first rule: you can only control your behavior, so don’t wade in hip deep into a debate with no end!
What are some hot button topics around most holiday tables?
- The traditional ones like politics and religion are definite ones, now more than ever.
- Climate change is a recent hot button.
- The current situation of family members who may or may not be present: divorce, affairs, drinking problems or flunking out of university… Whatever expectations were not met by some members of the family, it’s not the time to air them out!
- Money. Anything about money tends to get people riled up. Stay away from it.
- Appearances. If Aunt Ida has put on 20 pounds since last Christmas, the dining table isn’t the place to mention it!
So what’s left that you can talk about?
- Funny cat and dog stories.
- The absolute gorgeousness of the food you’re eating.
- Upcoming holiday plans for everybody—going around to each person will take some time! Or even post-holiday holidays!
- Telling old, funny stories from holidays past.
- Home improvement projects.
- Movies and theatre.
Step 4: Don’t take the bait
Just as you don’t want to instigate a fight, you have to be careful about taking the bait. When your ultra-conservative uncle starts pontificating on an issue of the day, knowing full well your views and that he is baiting you, don’t rise to it.
Take the moral high ground, smile and segue the conversation into what kind of firewood burns the longest in a wood stove. Okay, maybe not, but you get the gist of where I’m going, right? Here’s an example, per step 3: “Oh Uncle Jake, that’s an interesting subject but you know, I’m dying to hear about your trip to Aruba!” Then sit back, sip your drink and relax as Uncle Jake tells you all about it! People love to talk about themselves, so give them a chance to do it and your technique will diffuse the tension in an instant.
Step 5: Listen well
Often, part of the reason that we don’t agree with someone is because we haven’t fully heard what they have to say. Instead of hiding behind the Christmas tree, try listening to Aunt Zelda, whom you’ve previously written off as a flake. Active listening and giving her all your attention might lead you to the conclusion that what she has to say isn’t totally in left field and has merit worth discussing! But you’ll never know unless you give it a chance.
However you proceed into the lion’s den that can be the family holiday meal, just remember that, for better or for worse, they’re your family and they care about you. Most of the time!
Justin Lavelle is Chief Communications Officer for BeenVerified.com. BeenVerified helps people discover, understand and use public data in their everyday lives. It is a great tool to locate relatives and friends you’ve lost touch with and want to bring together over the holidays. The company is a leading source of online background checks and contact information. BeenVerified allows individuals to find more information about people, phone numbers, email addresses and property records in a way that’s fast, easy and affordable.