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4 Steps to Avoid Drama at the Dinner Table During Holidays

Use four techniques to stop drama before things escalate and ruin the holidays.

Key points

  • Holiday dinners should be free from topics that are deeply personal and polarizing.
  • Empathize but don't agree or disagree. This conveys respect but does not further the conversation.
  • Redirect the conversation to something more appropriate, and control the space when needed.

The holiday dinner table is glowing and stacked with your homemade favorites. Your family members are feasting and chatting happily when your uncle brings up his extreme views on a presidential candidate. Everyone gets quiet and you can see the discomfort on people’s faces. He rants about his views on recent events and the tension rises. One cousin makes a snarky comment in opposition, and your aunt jumps up to defend her husband. Things escalate and a nightmare fight ensues.

This may be a familiar scene, but there are specific tactics you can use to keep the peace this holiday season. Four tips can help you handle things before they spiral out of control. The four techniques—empathize but do not take a side, redirect the discussion, hit the “pause button,” and control the space—may assist you in shielding yourself and your family from unnecessary drama this year.

1. Empathize

First, empathize, but do not agree or disagree. Simply reflect what the person is feeling using a couple of words. Keep it short and sweet. Some examples include:

  • You feel strongly about this. I get it.
  • I hear what you are saying.
  • You are frustrated with things. I understand.
  • I hear you.

This initial step is respectful, kind, and avoids igniting defensiveness in the other person. It is an important first move. Remember, do not elaborate, or build on the discussion. Simply empathize.

2. Quickly redirect the discussion

You are gently taking control and steering the discussion away from anything that is deeply personal or polarizing. Those types of topics are better discussed one-on-one, in private, and not at a family function. Some examples of redirection include:

  • Have you guys checked out the holiday lights on Redfield? They are gorgeous.
  • Did you guys see the game on Saturday? I was on the edge of my seat!
  • How are the dogs? They are so darn cute and funny.
  • It is supposed to snow like crazy on Sunday.
  • How was your cruise? I’m dying to hear about Alaska.

People enjoy talking about their favorite sports team, vacations, pets, and grandkids. They may easily transition to topics they enjoy. If you put steps one and two together, it may sound like, “I know you are frustrated. I get it. Hey, how did your grandkids do at soccer on Sunday? I know you were excited to see them play.”

3. Hit the “pause” button

If the family member continues to return to the problematic topic, remain calm and stop the discussion with statements like:

  • Let’s switch gears now.
  • We have to agree to disagree and move on.
  • Everyone is entitled to their opinion so let’s leave it at that.
  • I don’t think this is a productive discussion, let’s hear about Hawaii.

Remember to remain composed and kind, but assertive. You are setting a boundary that conveys that heated subjects are off-limits at the holiday dinner table. These types of discussions should be held in private.

4. Control the space

Fourth, if things continue to escalate, transition some of the group into a different room. Invite the family members who look the most uncomfortable into a separate location. For example:

  • Rachel, is there any chance you and Dave can help me get the desserts ready?
  • Tim and Rick, would you mind helping me bring the cooler in from the garage?
  • Hey guys, can you grab the ice cream out of the basement freezer for me? It needs to soften for a bit.

By breaking up the group, you are saving people from engaging in a distressing dialogue that may be very hurtful. Quietly acknowledge that you support them and that the topic is inappropriate for the setting. Busy yourself, and them, until the people at the table settle down.

Preserve your holiday happiness by utilizing the four techniques identified above to manage conflict during the holidays. Your family members and children may thank you. In addition, you are setting an important boundary. Upsetting topics are off-limits during a special family dinner.

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