Photo illustration by Cierra Pedro

Four Tips for Surviving Dinner Table Conversations During the Holidays

The year has been divisive enough already. Here's how to make it out of a family function unscathed

The holidays are supposed to be about warmth and good cheer, family togetherness and extra gravy. But sometimes it seems like this time of year is less about relaxing into Hallmark Channel–style comfort and joy than about struggling to stretch our schedules, our stomachs and our wallets. And while last-minute shopping and cross-country travel are tough, they’re not as difficult as some of the political and personal discussions happening around the dinner table.

Whether the sticking point is Trump’s latest tweet or the nasty thing your sister said 10 years ago, Katherine M. Hertlein, director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program in UNLV’s School of Medicine, has some tips on how to handle family-related holiday stress.

1. Don’t get overwhelmed and overscheduled.

“You’ve got to have realistic expectations both for yourself and other people. The holidays are exciting and we want to participate in so many things, but be realistic with your time and what you’re able to do,” Hertlein says. “Second, be thinking about what the goal is: Is the goal to get the perfect gift, or is the goal to let someone know that you care about them?”

It won’t matter to your nephew that you found him a Lego BB-8 if you’re so tired and cranky after checking 10 stores that you practically snap his little head off when he doesn’t say “Thank you” fast enough. The most important thing you bring to the party is you, so try to get yourself there (relatively) undamaged.

2. There will be people you don’t want to see. Be ready for them. (And no, we don’t mean “Taser in my purse” ready.)

“Rather than focusing on what you can’t control about your interactions and who you interact with, shift it to how to control and manage the interaction and what choices you have,” Hertlein explains. “You’ve got to go by two strategies. First, if you can’t do the psychological boundaries of “I’m not going to let this person bother me,” then you do the physical boundaries. Maybe you guys are in the same space, but how can you organize that space? Is there a game you can start with the rest of the family? Is there someone else you want to connect with? Is there somewhere you can move away to? Second, roll back and get to a place where you operate from the stance of curiosity; ask why they feel that way. … If you don’t say anything, you can’t say the wrong thing.”

In other words, come prepared and don’t forget the two magic phrases: “Bless your heart” and “I’m going to get more pie.”

3. If the conversation goes south: Redirect!

Hertlein explains: “If there is a time and place to be able to deflect, you can do that through questions. Say, ‘That’s an interesting point, but I wanted to hear more from Sally, who said something earlier about ___.’ That’s a little more subtle. You’re not saying ‘You’re crazy’ and you’re not ignoring it. You can also say, ‘This sounds important, maybe we should revisit it later.’ So people are more likely to lay it down if they feel like they will be heard later. … Try to come from a place of protection of the family instead of criticizing the individual.”

A solid deflection that engages multiple people can be helpful. Some standards are, “Who is your most favorite member of the Corleone family?” and “Who is your least favorite member of the Kardashian family?”

4. Less “I don’t like what you’re saying,” more “I’m not sure about the way you’re saying it.”

“People are talking because they want their voice to be heard,” Hertlein says. She points out that your great-aunt is on a Trump tirade “because she believes the Republican agenda is going to protect us and help us and she really wants us to understand that. But there are many ways to convince people, and raising your voice is not the way to go about it. So maybe at those family tables, say, ‘Listen, your goal here is to convince everybody to see things your way, but it’s not coming across. … What you’re saying is important, but maybe you need to use a different approach.’ Then you might have a little more buy-in for that person calming down at the table.”

Look at it this way: Uncle Bob is being an asshole about “The Wall,” because Uncle Bob is frightened of the people on the other side. Maybe work less on convincing Uncle Bob he’s wrong than trying to point out that he’s being pretty scary himself. Or just say “Fuck it” and go get more pie.

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