We sense the looming train wreck. Our hearts pump hard, our forehead veins twitch. We can hear the screams of rage followed by the stony silence … while scorched apple pie smoke stings our nostrils. The season is upon us: the time of holiday dinners, with heaping helpings of awkward conversations.
Controversial topics gravitate to the dinner table, returning unwanted year after year. Chances are, your family’s holiday meals lie somewhere on the awkwardness spectrum between Aunt Bethany’s Pledge of Allegiance prayer from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and the “milking animals” discussion from “Meet the Parents.”
Holiday meals are some of the worst times to hash out issues or have deep discussions about sensitive topics. Yet family feasts seem to inevitably include a side of political rants, gross medical stories, inappropriate jokes, or the rehashing of family drama.
Every year we tell ourselves it’ll be different, that somehow our celebratory meal will be full of joy, peace, and normal conversation. How do things go so horribly wrong? Couldn’t we all truly get along — even if only for 30 minutes of face-stuffing glory?
Avoiding the Controversial Topics at Your Holiday Table
My wife, Sara, has a phobia about flying, so she’s obsessed with plane crashes on TV. Not for the tragedies (she’s not a monster!), but for the solutions. Experts investigate every single aviation accident to determine its cause, fix it, and prevent the same thing happening again. Seeing the process gives Sara just enough confidence to tiptoe warily onto a plane every couple of years or so.
Similarly, our awkward conversations (and family blowups) also have causes, and we can take practical steps to help prevent them. So, let’s dig in. Here are five tips to turn the tables on the controversies and set your family up for a comfortable, peaceful meal.
1. Set the Table
The average person, I’ve Googled, can endure 10 seconds of silence. We’re so averse to the absence of conversation that we’ll turn to anything — including awkward stuff — just to have something to say.
Combat the silence by planning out ideas for conversation ahead of time, creating some questions for everyone to talk about during dinner. Print them out and laminate them, if you’re feeling Martha Stewart-y! Holidays meals are a great place to reflect on what we’re thankful for, or to remember fun family moments. Ask about highlights from the past year, or favorite movies or TV shows. Let the questions lead. Consider priming the pump, too, by asking one or two family members ahead of time to tell a funny story during the meal. “Hey, don’t forget when we’re all together to tell us about that time when…”
2. Hire the Opposition
In some families, controversial topics often erupt from one or two lovable troublemakers. If that’s the case in your family, consider giving them a role to keep them occupied during the meal. If “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” (Proverbs 16:27, TLB), why not put those hands to work for you instead of against you? As a bonus, delegating responsibilities during the meal frees you up to do some conversation wrangling.
3. Debone Arguments Ahead of Time
“I have a bone to pick with you,” was my mom’s favorite entry into conflict. Our relatives may have “bones to pick” with others at the table, and they take their seats just itching to pick them. While we can’t force anyone to resolve conflict, we can encourage them to do work on it some other time, and preferably before the big meal. We can start by asking ourselves if we have any issues to bring up with a family member, and we can aim to resolve it before the gravy boat sails.
It’s especially crucial to do this with your spouse. Sara and I have found the holidays an especially vital time to address unresolved conflict and spend quality time together. And when time with extended family gets heated, there’s peace in knowing your spouse is on your side. Whether it’s a date night or booking a marriage retreat like FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember,® there’s no better time to focus on your marriage.
Once you’ve done the work you need to do on your own relationship dynamic you can reach out to your high-risk-for-awkwardness relatives. Use questions, for example, “How are you feeling about seeing Grandma?” If there’s tension, help them find an opportunity to resolve it before the holidays.
4. Pivot Away From Controversial Topics
It’s tempting to cut controversial topics off at the pass with a stark word, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that right now.” The problem is, that can feel like spilling a whole new can of awkward sauce on the table. Soften it with a question and it works better, and even better yet if you direct a genuine question of a different sort to the person you’re stopping. “Hey, can we talk about that later? I was wondering though, how your Mediterranean vacation went?” You’ll find that a lot easier to do if you’ve thought it through in advance. It’s crucial to sit down at the table with something in mind you can ask each relative about.
5. Pray a Blessing Over Your Holiday Table
Our family prays before a big meal — that is, immediately before. If you’re like me, your mind drifts during that prayer. It isn’t just my mind, actually: I’m usually sneaking bites of stuffing before we get to “Amen.” It’s actually a great time to ask God about the conversations to come. Feel free to ask for specific things — “Lord, would you help my grandfather to only speak kindly to Uncle Tim?” God already knows how that meal will go, so chatting with Him about it will be the most helpful thing you can do. Consider praying a specific verse over your family (Philippians 4:8, for instance), and ask God what He wants the meal to be like.
These five guidelines might not be able to head off all the holiday awkwardness, but with some strategies at hand — and by praying for God’s help and intervention — you’ll be prepared to minimize the discomfort. There’s only one good reason you really have to feel uncomfortable during holiday meals: from that great American tradition of stuffing ourselves silly.
Andy Allan provides care and logistical support for Cru missionaries serving abroad and writes for FamilyLife, host of Weekend to Remember,® and other Christian ministries. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and two kids, Ellie and Bodie. You’ll find him biking Lincoln’s trails or watching the latest “Fast and Furious” movie. Connect with him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KazBullet.
Weekend to Remember® is a two-and-a-half-day romantic weekend to invest in and strengthen marriages — no matter how firm or fragile. With over 80 event locations annually nationwide, Weekend to Remember® provides encouragement, hope, and practical tools to help build and grow your marriage. For more information about FamilyLife and Weekend to Remember® visit familylife.com.
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