Performance Communication

5 Communication Tips for Surviving Family Holiday Gatherings

5 Communication Tips for Surviving Family Holiday Gatherings

Thanksgiving is the kick-off to the holiday season. It’s often the first chance for family and friends to gather in large groups and enjoy each other’s company. Unfortunately, holiday gatherings can also be a big communication challenge for many families. Trying to do and say the “right” thing, meet others’ expectations, and deal with family members’ lack of tact and timing, can turn what should be a fun and festive holiday get-together into a nightmare experience people will talk about for years.

Following a few simple communication tips and setting some ground rules before everyone arrives can help make holiday gatherings positive events everyone will remember.

1. Turn the phones off.

Unless you’re expecting a call from an absent family member,  such as a service member who is overseas, try to get everyone to agree to shut off their phones– at least for the holiday meal, if not for the entire day. If you’re the host or hostess, you need to set the example. Don’t jump up from the dinner table to answer a call, or text under the table. Encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to really spend time connecting with those in attendance. If you are expecting a call from an out-of-town relative, put him or her on speaker so everyone can touch base.

2. Don’t use holiday gatherings as a forum for self-disclosure.

It may be tempting to take this opportunity, especially after you’ve had a few glasses of wine, to:

– Tell your mother-in-law what you really think about her meddling or

– Your brother what you think about his new Jaguar that he can’t stop talking about, or

– To tell everyone that you’re getting divorced

Resist the urge. At best, you’ll put a major damper on the entire event. At worst, you’ll cause a conflict to erupt, people will take sides, emotions will flare, and no one will be prepared to handle it properly. These conversations should be handled at another time and probably don’t need to have the entire family, especially children, involved.

3. Don’t bring up potential “sore subjects.”

If your brother lost his job, your niece was stopped for speeding for the fifth time, or it’s time for an elderly parent to start thinking about assisted living, don’t use the dinner table as the forum to discuss it. Sometimes these subjects come up innocently. Other times, there’s a motive behind the inquiry- embarrassing someone, making yourself feel superior, or ambushing grandma when all your siblings are there to support you. Regardless of your reason, bringing up such questions at the dinner table or mid-celebration is a no-no. If you’re concerned about a family member’s welfare, talk with him or her privately at another time.

4. Don’t criticize.

If the turkey is dry or you don’t like green Jell-O salad with shaved carrots, you don’t have to lie, just don’t eat it.  Don’t say “It tastes like shoe leather,” or “It looks like alien innards! I’m not eating that.” Nothing will be served by you giving your opinion- especially once everyone is seated at the table and the meal is served. Additionally, now is not the time to show how smart you are. Does it really matter that your sister-in-law is serving white wine in red wine glasses? Probably not. If you want to educate her with your wine expertise, tell her privately at another time.

Finally, if the cook or host pushes as you for the “truth,” try, “It might be a tiny bit dry, but your gravy is so good, it doesn’t matter,” or “No thanks, I don’t want to fill up. I’m saving room for the pumpkin pie.”

5. If confronted or criticized, respond graciously.

If you’re the one who lost your job, got a speeding ticket, or overcooked the turkey and someone is impolite enough to confront you, it’s your choice how to respond. If you want to discuss your job search because you think a relative can help, then do it.

However, if you don’t want to discuss your problems, simply change the subject, saying, “Why don’t we talk about that later, right now I just want to enjoy this great dressing.” You might also want to pull the confronter/critic aside later and ask him or her not to bring up your personal issues in front of others, even family.

Finally, if people criticize your cooking, say cheerfully and with utmost sincerity, “You may be right. Your turkey is always so juicy. Why don’t you make the turkey next year?” If critics can do a better job, then let them and save yourself some work.


When all else fails, remember that you have a choice—whether you choose to exercise it or not—as to whom you invite to your home or whose home you go to for the holidays. If a person is going to cause misery at your family gathering, this might be the year to take a break or make a break from him or her. For help with this, see my blog post Get Rid of Dead Weight Once and For All.

Happy Thanksgiving!  Here’s hoping your holiday gathering is joyful and conflict free.

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