Connecting at the Holiday Table: How to navigate difficult conversations

Connecting at the Holiday Table

Written by Kristen Simon


Whether you’re traveling to visit family or hosting at your home, manage the stress that often surrounds such gatherings by taking some time to think through and prepare for some potentially awkward or tricky conversations.

What to say, what to say…

Feeling concerned about what to discuss with family and friends at your next holiday gathering? Or perhaps you have a holiday party to attend where you don’t know many folks. Take a minute to think about the last time you were in a situation like that - how did you cope? More than likely, you spent a lot of time hovering around the buffet table or refilling your glass. It’s easier to distract yourself with food or drink, instead of engaging in uncomfortable situations. There’s nothing wrong with either coping response - but finding ways to participate more fully in these gatherings can help to transform them from something you dread to something you find fulfilling, something you look forward to, something positive in your life.

  • A classic conversation starter is the gratitude question: “What are you grateful for, and why?” Kick it off with something positive, and encourage others to take it seriously and participate fully.

  • Take advantage of the time of year and ask others, “What was the best part of your year?” or, “How was this year different than last year? What changed for the better?” It’s a great way to celebrate successes, and to reinforce positive changes.

  • Another variation on the same theme is to ask, “Who are you grateful for?” or, “Who has changed your life for the better?” This one can be especially fun if the other person is in the room or at the table.

  • If you’re at a holiday party where you don’t know a lot of people, make things a little more interesting by asking folks, “What do you love about your job? Why do you do what you do?” It goes a step further than just asking what they do, and shows that you’re interested in them and not just making small talk.

If all else fails, search for common ground. Ask folks about their interests, their hobbies, their families, or their work. Share something you enjoy to get the ball rolling, and

Ask me another…

Picture this: You’re doing your best to steer the conversation in a positive direction, but your Aunt Frances won’t stop peppering you with questions about your love life, and you can hear Grandpa Joe in the other room ranting about politics. It’s a dicey situation, but there is a way through (or around - avoiding or choosing not to answer these questions is always an acceptable choice).

The first thing you can do when someone asks you an awkward, inappropriate, or pushy question is to pause and figure out what they’re really asking. That is, why are they asking you this question. They may not know any better; in that case, letting them know that you feel uncomfortable with the question is usually the best route. Perhaps they know better, but they’re just so angry about this issue, that they don’t care. They’re trying to push your buttons, to bait you into an argument. Your best bet here is to defuse the situation. Or maybe they’re asking because they care, because they are truly interested in you and your life. Find a more appropriate way to connect by moving on to a topic that doesn’t make you uncomfortable. Still at a loss for words? Check out some of our responses below and see what resonates with you:

Q: “Why are you eating that? I thought you were on a diet...”

Okay, before you get frustrated, and huff and puff at your family member, take a deep breath. There may be some judgment tied up in this question, or it may just be curiosity. Either way, avoid going on the defensive here. This question offers an opportunity to talk with your inquisitive loved one about your eating habits; let them know that you’re not following a strict set of diet rules, but rather approaching eating more mindfully - opting for nutritious foods more often, but still making room on your plate for foods that may feel indulgent. You’re approaching this with a long-term mindset.

Q: “Last week in the news…”

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, chances are you’ve got a loved one on the other side. And there’s a pretty high probability that someone is going to bring up something political. If it’s a conversation that’s sure to get your blood boiling quickly, get out before things have a chance to get heated. Something like, “Oh, I saw that too. Did you see the story about *insert positive non-political news here*?” If someone refuses to take the hint and continues to bring up politics, be direct: “I love and respect you, and I respect your opinions, but this isn’t something I want to get into right now.” Practice saying that one in the mirror; it’s tough to say in the moment, but it’ll (ideally) put an end to any political talk.

Q: “Fat is super unhealthy for you. I’m only eating raw vegetables now…”

There are many ways to respond to this statement. You could choose to educate your loved one, letting them know we actually need fat in our diets for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and more. You could expand on your eating habits, by reminding them that what you’re actually doing is practicing mindful awareness, not food group favoritism. Or you can reply, “That is awesome, good for you!” and move on to a completely different subject.

Q: “When are you having kids/getting married...” or “Are you seeing anyone special...”

This set of questions has the ability to turn a pleasant conversation into something much more uncomfortable very quickly. A good response? “Thanks for asking, but that’s private.” A bad response? Anything snarky. Avoid snapping back; no matter how witty you sound in your head, your loved one (who is likely genuinely interested in you and your happiness) will leave the conversation feeling hurt.

Q: “Why won’t you just try one bite...”

Let’s start by saying: there is nothing wrong with trying just one bite. But, if you’re choosing to opt out of Aunt Sally’s apple pie, you may be concerned about hurting her feelings. Remember your own feelings. You get to choose what feels right for your body. Perhaps you made a plan for this event and want to you to stick to it - that’s okay! The best way to get through this is to include that loved one in your choice. Let them know what you’re doing, how you’re changing your habits, and why it’s important to you; tell them that you love them (and their cooking), and that you appreciate the effort they’ve put into making the dish.

Use these tips at your next holiday event to help navigate all the potential conversational bumps in the road. When things turn uncomfortable or awkward, remember to breathe, to consider why the person is asking, and to answer in a way that moves the conversation in a positive direction.





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