3 Tips for Surviving the Thanksgiving Table

The holidays are upon us and with all the fun and celebration, too often also comes stress. It's easy to feel overwhelmed with all the things that need to be done for shopping and meals and travel and more. It's also easy (and normal) to feel tension when we spend time with family who may not operate as we do or see things like we do. Maybe you've got a family member who loves to talk politics but is on the opposite end of the policy spectrum from you. Or they love to give unsolicited parenting advice (or financial advice or lifestyle advice or whatever advice). Or maybe they just love to argue about everything and anything. How to you survive without falling into the trap of an impossible-to-win argument? How do you enjoy your holiday without losing your mind?

In my experience as a mediator, I see folks get through tough conversations by keeping their cool, staying respectful, and staying true to themselves. Just because you don't argue back doesn't mean you're weak or don't have an opinion. Lively discussion is one thing. Endless arguing with tinges of attack is a whole different thing. To help you survive the Thanksgiving table or any other family gathering, I've got a three-step process to help you prepare ahead of time with the tools you'll need to survive less bruised.

Prepare with Intention

Spend a few minutes ahead of time to think about how you want to feel/be/react/survive. Do you want to keep your cool? Keep the peace? Help others enjoy themselves? Set an intention for yourself that this is what you'll strive for. Come up with a key word or phrase that captures the way you want to be and keep it in your brain for quick reference if you feel yourself slipping into a persona you don't want to be. NOTE: This is for you and does not have to be shared with anyone else unless you want it to. The word or phrase can be thought of privately whenever needed and not put out to the group for potential mocking.

Plan with Topics

After you've set your intention for the meal/day/visit, take some time to think about what kinds of things trigger you to being the kind of you you don't want to be. What triggers other people who you'll be around? Keep those topics in mind and try to avoid them if they don't fit your intention. It is okay to say "Let's talk about something else" and have some topics handy. Or you can try any of these:

"I hear ya."

"That's what I heard."

"I saw talk of that."

"That's an interesting point of view."

"I don't exactly agree with that but that's okay."

"We don't have to agree on everything. But one think I bet we do agree on is Grandma's Pecan Pie recipe."

"How about we agree to disagree?"

"It's okay if we see things a little differently. That's what makes it interesting. And it doesn't mean I don't love you."

"It has been a rough couple of years in politics."

"I do hope they can find a way to work together in Washington so we can get important work done without tearing each other apart."

"You're engaged on a fight with something and it's not me."

"We don't know yet how it's going to be so we can only hope for the best."

"I'm starting to feel a little attacked, can we change the subject?"

Then, after you've changed the subject, introduce a neutral or soft topic, like:

  • Movies

  • Books

  • TV shows

  • Sports

  • Recipes

  • Extra-curricular activities that kids have been in, you've done as a family ("For fall break we went camping. It was...)

  • Future holiday plans

  • Work

  • Health/exercise trends

Retreat when Necessary

Finally, after you've run out of neutral things to talk about or none of the above worked, get up and move, if necessary. Go help in the kitchen, run to the store, play with the kids, go for a walk. You're not being rude by doing something other than arguing. Try to keep your manners about it and just excuse yourself to go do something positive. Eventually, the torture will end and you'll get to go home.

Frequently in mediation, I'll suggest that the parties take a break. It doesn't mean we're quitting, just taking a breather. This gives everyone a chance to step back from the intensity of the discussion and let the big picture come into play again. It is really easy to get stuck on a certain point because it's important to us but it may not necessarily be helping to keep the conversation constructive. In fact, when I hear parties repeating themselves I try to help them see where that one point fits in the big conversation. Again, it doesn't mean you have to change your priorities or morals or ethics or whatever the case may be. In this scenario, we're just talking about Thanksgiving, not the United Nations.

If you like to banter a bit then go for it. But if it gets to the point where it's unpleasant or worse, keep in mind, we can't win all the battles or change all the minds. When you've had enough, remember your intention and take action to get things on track. Good luck and Happy Holidays!