Thanksgiving is the time when family and friends gather to share a meal. It's our time to express gratitude for the blessings we've experienced in the past year. But all of that can get derailed by arguments at the dinner table. And this year--just two weeks and two days after the most acrimonious election most of us can remember--the danger of a flare-up is greater than usual.
You want to enjoy Thanksgiving. Can you keep it from turning surly? The answer is yes--with a little bit of advance planning. Here's how:
1. Set some ground rules.
One of the best ways to lower the risk of an argument is to let people know well before you sit down at the table that you'd like to avoid hot-button topics. These could include anything from Obamacare to your brother's decision to drop out of college. Send an email, text, Facebook message, or make a phone call to your friends and family members. Say something like, "My request is that we not talk about X at Thanksgiving dinner this year. I realize X is an important issue. But because there are strong emotions around this topic, I prefer we not discuss it during this once-a-year family get-together."
2. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is one of the best ways to retain your calm in a stressful situation. It will also help you get a big-picture view of family disagreements and help you keep your reactions in proportion. Increasing your mindfulness can be as simple as stopping and taking a few deep breaths, focusing your attention on nothing but your breathing. Or it can be a full meditation practice. Either way, use mindfulness in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, and on the day itself, to help yourself stay cool no matter what happens.
3. Think ahead about what (and who) pushes your buttons.
This isn't your first family gathering. So if you think about it for a few moments, you probably already know who's going to upset you and just how they're going to do it. That's powerful knowledge, because it means you can mentally prepare. Then when your least favorite aunt makes a disparaging comment about your weight or your career, you can think to yourself, "Aha! I knew she was going to say that. That's why I planned my response." And then do whatever you planned.
Consider using this technique with other family members as well. If you know your husband tends to lock horns with his father, have a conversation ahead of time about what your father-in-law might say and how he might best react.
4. Refuse to take the bait.
Most of the time, the best response to a hot-button topic is no response. Either say nothing, or say something brief and neutral that invites no further conversation. For example: "So your company is still losing money?" You: "Yes." Followed by silence or a compliment to whoever made the meal.
Don't give in to the temptation to explain yourself. And whatever you do, don't go in armed with facts or talking points. That's good for a debating club but bad for a family dinner. You're trying to deflect these conversations so it's counterproductive to engage in them.
On the other hand, you can take pleasure in the knowledge that your non-response will rattle that relative much more than any retort you could have made. It's conversational Aikido: By sidestepping an attack, you cause that energy to dissipate rather than strengthen.
5. Ask yourself what's at stake.
Most of us crave approval and agreement from our family and friends, and it's that craving that can get us into trouble at family gatherings. But we're grown-ups, and most of the time our family's approval or disapproval doesn't carry the power it did when we were children. It doesn't matter whether your father thinks you should have changed jobs long ago--it's what you think that counts.
Most of the time, your family's good or bad opinion about anything you do (let alone political figures or sports teams) can't affect you. On the other hand, an acrimonious family gathering has a negative effect on everyone there.
6. Plan good conversation topics.
It's much easier to start a conversation than to stop one, so plan the conversations you want to have. Did someone at the table just get back from an international trip? Have a baby? Retire? Use these topics as aids to deflect the conversations you want to avoid. "So, you didn't get that promotion?" You: "No. Aunt Sally, tell us about your trip to Portugal."
Now the first speaker has no choice but to either move on to the new topic or say something patently rude, such as: "Who cares about dusty old Portugal? I want to know why your career is going nowhere." And if they do, they'll lose credibility with everyone present. More likely they'll just settle down and move on to the new topic.
And your family will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner in peace.