Rejoice: the holiday season is often an opportunity for spending time with family, especially relatives you haven’t seen for a while. Beware: it can get awkward.
Along with all the festivities and joyful moments, holiday gatherings are also notorious for being a breeding ground for uncomfortable conversations, petty disagreements, and festering family conflicts that return to rear their ugly heads.
But don’t despair: we’ve prepared seven strategies for navigating holiday visits with the right choice of words and a whole lot of patience. Everyone navigates awkwardness differently—including head-on—but here are some strategies that may help you skip the family fracas and instead focus on why you’ve all gathered in the first place: enjoying each other’s company (and the food).
📝Please note: Sometimes, talk that’s chalked up to “political differences” is actually much worse. We know that, for some people, situations can go beyond awkward or uncomfortable into territory that’s toxic and abusive. No one should have to tolerate abusive, racist, or other bigoted comments or treatment—from their relatives or anyone else. We also know that “saying the right thing” isn’t a magic escape from these situations. If you find yourself facing this kind of treatment, do what you need to do to keep yourself safe (which, sadly, in some cases is not going in the first place).
This article is not meant to address these kinds of situations. We’re talking about avoiding petty family squabbles and dodging annoying questions.
1. Come ready with conversation starters and questions.
If you want to keep the conversation light, friendly, and fun, come ready with a few tools to make that happen. Conversation starters and questions are a great way to connect with people, particularly during a time like the holidays when you might see family and friends you haven’t spent time with in a long time or don’t know very well. The best icebreakers are open-ended and encourage people to share fun, interesting, or quirky things about themselves that they might not think to share normally. Here are a few ideas:
- If you had to pick one holiday food to never eat again, which one would it be?
- What’s the best thing that happened to you in 2021?
- If you had your own intro music, which song would it be?
- What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen this week?
- What’s one big thing you want to accomplish in the new year?
2. Artfully change the subject when tough topics come up.
Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you stumble into a difficult conversation. Maybe you bring up a news story from the previous week, and then realize your family members have strong feelings about it, or maybe someone at the holiday party starts asking rude questions about your dating status. Whatever the case may be, it’s never too late to artfully change the subject to avoid annoying arguments or invasive questions. Here are a few ways to do that:
Validate their point of view, then pivot.
I can tell you’re passionate about this, and I admire that. You know what I’ve been really interested in lately…
Ask a question about a related topic to shift the conversation.
No, I’m not dating. I heard your sister just got married, though. How was the wedding?
Act like their comment reminded you of something you’d like to share.
Yeah, Facebook groups can be really frustrating. That reminds me, did you see that SNL skit last week about the awkward book club?
Bring another person into the conversation.
Bre, have you met Jeff? He was just telling me all about his marathon training and I know you started running last year.
3. Channel your competitive energy into a family game.
Want to get everyone involved in a fun activity instead of an epic battle? Organize a family game. Classic board games are a great option that can be set up without much difficulty. If you have a larger family, you might even organize a contest, trivia night, or other group game to ensure everyone gets a chance to bond and play together.
4. Use favorite memories as a way to bring everyone together.
The good times you’ve shared together as a family are typically a pretty safe conversation topic, and they’re usually fun to talk about as well. After all, who can forget that Thanksgiving when Dad dropped the turkey or the road trip when your brother threw up during the family photo at the Grand Canyon? At your next gathering, you could coax the conversation into fun, non-controversial territory by encouraging everyone to share one of their favorite family memories, or you might get the conversation started yourself by reminding everyone of something funny or particularly sweet that you were all a part of together.
5. Plan a family movie night.
If your holiday gatherings are known for being a little tense, offset the negative vibes by planning a fun family movie night. Pick movies everyone enjoys, or you could even ask your family members to contribute a favorite movie to the list. Make a bunch of great snacks, and then gather around the television for some easy, entertaining family time. The benefit of centering the night around movies is that it gives everyone something to focus on. Most of the conversation will revolve around the films themselves or the memories and anecdotes they bring up, so it will be easy to keep the talking light and to a minimum. Plus, watching movies everyone loves will put the whole family in a good mood.
6. Address disagreements with a cool, level head.
You and your family members aren’t going to agree on everything, no matter how much you love each other. Sometimes you just aren’t going to agree, no matter how much you talk about something. If you find yourself in a heated back and forth with seemingly no way out, try these steps to handle it without losing your cool.
Ask open-ended questions so they feel they are being heard.
Can you explain why you feel that way?
No, I hadn’t heard that report. Where are you getting this information?
Find the common ground.
The pandemic has been hard for people in a lot of different ways, and I’m struggling to adjust as well.
Politely state your boundary or stance.
For me, the important thing is …
For our kids, we think it’s best if we …
Finding the positives (though this doesn’t work with all topics).
I can tell you that you’ve given this a lot of thought, and it’s okay if we don’t feel the same way.
7. Don’t expect perfection.
In an ideal world, families could see each other during the holidays, and it’d be just like a Hallmark movie. There’d be laughter, joy, hugs, perfectly cooked food, and absolutely no awkwardness or discomfort. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way it works for many people. Families are collections of people with different beliefs, needs, and life experiences, and that means not every person is going to agree on every issue or get along 100% of the time. Don’t expect perfection from your family. Do your best to respond to tough conversations with respect and care, and expect the same from your relatives in return.