Home for the Holidays?

Talking at the dinner table about things that matter.

Posted Dec 20, 2019

I recall from a young age hearing the advice to avoid discussion about religion and politics at the dinner table. I initially didn’t understand why. I eventually learned that these topics could quickly lead to hurt feelings, raised voices, and frankly, indigestion. The take-away was to do what you can to avoid conflict at Sunday dinners and holiday gatherings. Avoid what’s uncomfortable. Keep the peace by staying clear of topics that might lead to disagreement.  

While none of us want drama at dinner time, we lose something by avoiding important topics. By keeping talk superficial with those we dine with and those we love, we miss opportunities to really get to know each other and learn from those with whom we have different views. 

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Get to know each other around the dinner table, and learn from those with whom we have different views.
Source: Seventyfour/Adobe Stock

With the holidays here, many of us will reunite with family members that we otherwise don’t see or spend much time with. You could decide to stick with comfortable conversation topics: shopping, favorite Netflix shows, or even your work, only at a superficial level, of course.

However, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, this holiday season I want to challenge you to dig deeper. We are in the middle of impeachment proceedings, and you may have opinions about this. Perhaps you have opinions about the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the Democratic candidates for U.S. president, or the issues happening in the Catholic Church? If one of these topics comes up at your family gathering, I want you to be prepared. Rather than looking the other way or pretending you didn’t hear what happened, I invite you to engage. I want to give you some tools that will help you speak up but also listen. I am not encouraging a yelling match of opinions, but rather I am hoping you will engage with courage, authenticity, and humility.

But how, you may ask. Inspired by a book I co-authored, It’s Time to Talk (And Listen): How to Engage in Cultural Conversations About Race, Class, Sexuality, Ability, and Gender in a Polarized World, here are some tips to help you be ready to initiate and receive difficult dialogues at the dinner table.

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Avoid goals that are about changing people’s minds or silencing others. That’s not a conversation, that's a one-sided lecture.
Source: adrian_ilie825/Stock Adobe
  • Figure out what your goal is. What do you want to happen from engaging in the conversation? Examples of goals are:  “I want to stand up for myself”; “I want to stand up for a marginalized group”; “I want to share a different perspective, to help contribute to the discussion”. Avoid goals that are about changing people’s minds or silencing others. That’s not a conversation, that’s usually a one-way lecture.
  • Prepare for the barriers that could get in your way. What might interfere with accomplishing this goal? Take inventory of the internal barriers. Are you afraid of upsetting your grandmother? Are you worried that the children at the table might be listening and negatively impacted by the exchange? Are you concerned your anger might get the best of you and take over? Identify possible external barriers that could get in the way too. Not enough time? History of bad blood with this particular family member? By knowing what barriers may prevent true dialogue, you increase your chances of successfully working through them or planning around them.
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Core values center you and are your ideal compass when making decisions in your life.
Source: EtiAmmos / StockAdobe
  • Ground yourself before you sit down to talk with others. Take some deep breaths. Start out from a place of peace and clarity before exchanging words. Anchor yourself in a calm space by imagining yourself inhaling in your core value. What is a core value, you ask. Core values center you and are your ideal compass when making decisions in your life. Examples of core values are honesty, courage, faith, hope, perseverance, strength, authenticity, and love. I could go on, but you get the idea. You may root yourself in love for your family; you love them and so it’s worth taking the risk to have this conversation. You may lean on faith to guide your conversation; you’re not exactly sure what will happen, but you have faith that it will work out. Another favorite value is courage. Rely on courage to get you through this challenging conversation. After all, there is likely to be some delicious dessert awaiting you after you get through the talk and the meal! 
  • Set the stage with an opener. Let the listener know you “come in peace.” Examples of openers are, “I really care about you, and so I want to talk with you about something that means a lot to me,” or “I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, but I think it’s important, and so I’m going to give it a try,” or “I would like to address something that can be a hot topic. I am confident we can handle talking about this together.”
  • Remember to listen. Once you’ve delivered your message and shared your thoughts, now it’s your turn to be all ears. As Dr. Miguel Gallardo said in a recent Cultural Humility podcast interview, “We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Don’t be defensive. Don’t shut down. Don’t focus on planning what you’ll say next. Really listen. Open your heart to the other person’s ideas, even if you disagree.
  • Thank the person in a genuine way for hearing you out, spending time with you, or even agreeing to disagree. You don’t have to like what the other person has said, but you can still be thankful for their presence and willingness to meet you in the conversation.

With these tips in hand, I wish you holidays full of heartfelt conversations.

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May your dinner table be full of ideas, respect for differences, and compassion for yourself and others.
Source: Luckybusiness /Adobe Stock


Kim, A., & del Prado, A. (2019). It’s Time to Talk (and Listen): How to Have Constructive Conversations about Race, Class, Sexuality, Ability, & Gender.  Berkeley, CA: New Harbinger Publications.