Managing Difficult Conversations Around the Thanksgiving Table

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I love every aspect of it.   The colors and smells of fall, the decorations, the reflection and simple act of gratitude, the celebration of a holiday with no gifts to purchase.  I also savor creating and preparing the extensive menu, the table setting, and the guest list.

Then there is the actual meal.  Growing up in a family that seemed to make every get together a competitive event to discuss ‘hot’ topics, the dinner experience quickly degraded.  I’ve learned a few things over the years about how to set up and manage dinner topics so that the experience and conversation flow smoothly.

Writing this article proved refreshing as I was able to entwine just what conversations and conversation topics unite, bond and create lasting and memories, versus the discussions that leave people feeling overstuffed from all the verbal discourse.

I’m excited to put my topic list to the test as about 20 family members will start arriving the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Below are my best tips for holiday activities and topics as well as two of my favorite holiday recipes.

Count your blessings.
Reflect on what you are thankful for.  This puts me in a mood of gratitude and appreciation for what I have and the people in my life.  And then, regardless of how many bumps in the road occur, I’m grounded in gratitude.

Bless the meal. 
Even with a variety of traditions or religious practices, everyone can come together with a quote, a poem or even sharing what they are most grateful for from this past year.  This sets the tone for the meal.

Embrace Traditions.
If possible, include some of the guests’ favorite recipes into the menu or maybe even their traditions.  My in laws typically have BBQ the evening before Thanksgiving.  So we will accommodate their tradition.  My mom is an avid Cowboys fan so, needless to say, the TV will be on after we eat.

Conversation topics.
Knowing a few topics to bring up for conversation starters really help direct – or redirect if needed – any conversations that begin to go sideways.  And with this year being ‘politically heavy’, that is where most would likely go unless other suggestions are made.  Make a list of topics you would like to see and hear people talking about over dinner.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

What are the top 3 things you are most grateful for this year?

What holiday plans do you have for this season?

What’s the most exciting item on your bucket list and why?

What were your favorite Thanksgiving (or Christmas) holiday traditions growing up? Now?

What brings you the most relaxation?

Managing Difficult Conversations.
If conversations get difficult, here are a few strategies.  Most times, these conversations occur between just a few people and not the entire group.

Use the preemptive approach to people who would be the highest likely to make conversations difficult. Share with them ‘off limits’ conversations such as, “Dad, I’m happy you are here.  To make our holiday joyous for everyone, I have devised some guidelines regarding certain topics.”  There are areas that we are going to focus on and some we aren’t.  You know your family and the topics to avoid.  If further explanation is needed, share the experience you want to have for the event and your expectations that guests will support them.

Invite one of the members into another conversation. “John, Debbie is interested to know more about what you do as a bee keeper.”

Join the conversation and steer it another direction.

Invite a group conversation for the table. “I’d love to hear from everyone about what they’ve learned this year,” or “I’d love to get everyone’s ideas for next years’ family reunion.  I’m thinking….?”  “How about you, Frank?”

If a conversation escalates and all else fails, your focus should be to ‘save and redirect the conversation’ even if it requires inviting someone to ‘join you in the kitchen.’

For many, it’s the one time of year when all other topics can be put aside and we get to appreciate and give thanks for what we have and all our blessings.

We at Effective Edge give thanks and count you as one of our blessings.  And with that, here are two of my favorite recipes:  my famous cornbread dressing and a real Texas pecan pie.  Enjoy!!

Recipe: Christina’s Thanksgiving Dressing

Recipe: Texas Pecan Pie

Christina Randle, Senior Performance Catalyst, CEO



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