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12 Ways to Steer the Conversation So Everyone Is Happy on Thanksgiving

Perhaps this year even more than most, it is important at Thanksgiving dinner to connect authentically with love and tolerance.

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Being around family can be challenging, especially during the holidays. There is no group of people who can get us more instantly unnerved than family. You could invest half your life’s savings into therapy -- good therapy, effective therapy -- and, within five minutes you find you’re regressing under the stress of the same old enmeshed, craziness in your family that never changes. Before you head over the river and through the woods, give some thought to the following strategies to help you steer conversations towards the positive this Thanksgiving.

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 1. Be a listener.

Family dynamics naturally bring with them a certain amount of positioning and competition. People, especially family, can tell when you’re not truly listening or engaged in what they’re saying. They know you inside and out, so hold-your-horses before impulsively interrupting. It’s common, that before someone has finished sharing, you’re already eager to tell them about an amazing experience you’ve had. This creates a negative environment that is more about one-upmanship than about having a real conversation. Choose to listen before you speak. If your own story is important and interesting, then it will still be interesting in 10 minutes. 

2. Wait to respond.

Instead of needing to feel in control by being the conversation starter, wait to be invited into conversations. As you engage, show a genuine curiosity for what the other person is sharing with you. Other people are interesting, even family, when you can put aside your ingrained prejudgments. Ask questions to learn more about what they are sharing with you, to better evolve the conversation. As you gather more detail it increases the likelihood of establishing a deeper connection, allowing the conversation to be more meaningful, positive, peaceful and memorable.

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3. Be authentic.

There is nothing more irritating than a know-it-all. This quality tends to come out in all of us when around family. Let your ego down. Why do you need to be center stage when you know it isn’t going to change the family dynamic? Drop the need to show off, and just be you. Refrain from forcing conversations. Learn to be comfortable in your own skin when you’re not talking about yourself. This makes whomever you’re talking to more open in the conversation. When people are open, the conversation becomes more authentic for all involved.

4. Be mindful of others.

There is nothing worse than getting stuck in a conversation with that one person in the family who talks your ear off because they’re either nervous, or because they simply have no interest in you being anything more than an audience member to their conversation. Pay attention to pauses in their conversation and politely say, “’Hey I don’t mean to cut you off, but I really need to go and check on…” and excuse yourself. This puts an end to an irritation that could potentially have no end.

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5. Use humor.

Nothing can lighten the mood of a stressful situation more effortlessly than bringing a joyful energy into the environment with you. Emotions are contagious so smile, hug and use light touch to bring a sense of fun and warmth into the conversational dynamic. If you’re going to joke, joke about yourself and your flaws. The more imperfect you are, the more likable. It’s a way to instantly put people at ease around you. Avoid sarcastic humor in a family dynamic. If you’re joking down, it’s a cut down. Someone will absolutely be offended.

6. Remain drama-light.

Holidays can be a lot of drama, for this reason, keep conversations light. If one person begins ranting about another behind their back, laugh it off and change the direction of the conversation. The more light things can be, the easier things feel. Drama-light is the way to go. This helps to avoids igniting emotional triggers needlessly in ourselves or others. Getting involved in any of the family gossip will only produce disastrous consequences.

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7. Focus on the good.

Every person has their positive and negative qualities. When you get around family it is easy (and lazy) to only focus on the qualities of your family members you don’t like. Another common habit is to only focus on and look for the dynamics that have hurt you in the past, to see if they are still present. If you go looking for trouble, you’re likely to find it. To avoid getting triggered, focus on looking for the things you like about each person you’re going to be around. Give compliments if you notice something you like about someone else. People love compliments and it lightens the overall mood.

8. Bring a distraction.

There is no better way to avoid family drama than to have something else to focus on. Suggest playing Cards Against Humanity, Pictionary, or Trivial Pursuit. You may want to suggest snuggling in and watching movies or sports after the festivities are over. It’s helpful to have light music in the background and to engage in helping with meals etc. These distractions are great ways to be in conversations that have a direction, other than drama. Anything around teamwork or coming together in any sort of activity, keeps things in a mellow and connected place, and away from negative personal dynamics.

9. Be inclusive.

One of the biggest triggers to hurt feelings in a family dynamic is feeling unimportant or left out. Make it a point to recognize other people. If you’re in a conversation with multiple people and another family member is looking on and observing, try and include that person in the conversation. Too often when we’re talking we’re not noticing that another person may be feeling left out. When you are mindful to be inclusive, everyone feels important.

10. Leave it for later.

If something happens that offends you at this holiday gathering, do not confront and make a scene in front of everyone where the person being confronted will end up feeling publically humiliated, and will want nothing more than to leave. There is always time to confront, and it is not when you’re at the peak of your emotional irritation. It is possible to, either pull that person aside and confront them privately, or you can hold off and confront that person in the days that follow the holiday. Often times when you let something breathe you realize the confrontation isn’t worth it. But if it is, it can wait. Positive resolution is more likely to happen between you and this person when it is done respectfully.

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11. Be kind.

Kindness will get you further in life than any other human characteristic. What can anyone say about you for being kind? Commit yourself to kindness, not allowing yourself to be weak to reactiveness. There are kind ways to do everything from setting boundaries, to exiting conversations, to keeping things light, and to staying out of the drama when conversing with others. Have a gentle tone to your voice and do everything with a sense of quiet. Commit to being composed, honest and simple.

12. Be prepared.

Go into all family gatherings prepared. Know who you’re dealing with and accept people for who they are, so you can meet them where they’re at emotionally. There will undoubtedly be negativity and emotional triggers to old and current wounds for you and everyone there, so be mindful. Avoid going into this holiday looking for change, approval or for gaining your lost sense of self-worth. Go into the holiday knowing what the triggers are, so you can strategically avoid them. Keep things light, and be grateful for what you can. It’s only one day.