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Posted December 14, 2021 by Center for Family and Relational Health
Tags: Communication

Surviving Christmas Dinners: Tips for Communicating Well in the Holiday Season

Holiday Feast Table

As we approach our most family-centered holidays, the thought of sitting around the dinner table and sharing a family meal can be a source of joy, but also great trepidation. The increased stress of COVID concerns reuniting with relatives for the first time since the pandemic could make the usual dinner communication more difficult to navigate than ever. However, this season you do not have to resign yourself to awkward or polarizing conversations with your great uncles you have not seen in two years. Here at the Center for Marriage and Relational Health we want to provide some practical tips to navigate challenging topics and communicate constructively over Christmas dinner.

1. Prioritize “being with” over “being right” 

It can be challenging to have respectful conversations that build instead of tear down relationships. While standing up for what you believe is important, putting the person before the argument can go a long way in creating space at the table to have authentic and meaningful connection. Even if family members have wildly different worldviews, we all have shared human needs; we all want to be accepted and experience belonging. Even when you don’t agree with your great-grandmother’s beliefs, you can show her that her voice is valuable by actively listening to her perspective, validating common ground, and recognizing that you don’t have to agree with each other to love each other. 

2. Practice redirection

At times it’s helpful to redirect a conversation that you know won’t be fruitful. Perhaps your family has the same fight every time you gather about politics. Instead of indulging the conversation and letting things escalate, consider redirecting the conversation early or asking to avoid the hot topic ahead of time. It’s ok to have boundaries. Prepare yourself for redirection in advance with alternative subjects. If a conversation begins to become negative, you might say, “You know, rather not go there today. That topic gets me down. Tell me about what you’ve been watching or reading recently. I’d love some new recommendations” or “I don’t want us to argue. Let’s talk about something else. What’s something that’s brought you joy this year?” 

3. Know when it’s time to take a walk

Sometimes you can practice all the advice above, and still find yourself in an emotionally charged conversation headed towards disaster. Instead of continuing to engage it may be a time to step back and take a walk or change the conversations. Psychiatrist and Family Systems Theory developer Murray Bowen used the term “limbic tango” to describe arguments that overly-engage the limbic system (leading to increased reactivity), rather than the parts of our brain that are able to rationalize. When two or more individuals allow their reactivity to take over their logic, listening and communicating well suddenly becomes very difficult. It is important in those instances to step away and re-engage when both parties are ready once again.

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