We already sense the looming train wreck. Our hearts pump harder, forehead veins twitch. We can hear the screams of rage followed by stony silence … while scorched apple pie smoke stings our nostrils. The season is upon us: the time of holiday dinners, with heaping helpings of awkward conversations.
Controversial topics gravitate to the dinner table, returning unwanted year after year. Chances are, your family’s holiday meals lie somewhere on the awkwardness spectrum, between Aunt Bethany’s Pledge of Allegiance prayer from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and the “milking animals” discussion from Meet the Parents.
Holiday meals are some of the worst times to hash out drama or have deep discussions about sensitive topics. Yet family feasts seem to inevitably include a side of political rants, gross medical stories, inappropriate jokes, or the rehashing of family drama.
Every year we convince ourselves it’ll be different, that somehow our celebratory meal will be full of joy, peace, and normal conversation. How do things go so horribly wrong? Could we all truly get along—even if only for 30 minutes of face-stuffing glory?
Avoiding the controversial topics at your holiday table
My wife Sara has a phobia of flying, so she’s obsessed with plane crashes on TV. Not for the tragedies (she’s not a monster!), but for the solutions. Experts investigate every single aviation accident to determine the cause, fix it, and avoid it happening again. The process gives Sara just enough confidence to tiptoe warily onto a plane every couple of years or so.
Similarly, our awkward conversations (and family blowups) also have a cause and a practical solution. So, let’s dig in. Here are five tips to turn the tables on the controversy and set your family up for a comfortable, peaceful meal.
1. Set the table.
The average person, I’ve Googled, can endure 10 seconds of silence. We’re so averse to the absence of conversation that we’ll turn to anything—including awkward stuff—just to have something to say.
Combat the silence by planning out the conversation ahead of time, creating some questions for everyone to talk about during dinner. Heck, print them out and laminate them if you’re feeling Martha Stewart-y! Holidays meals are a great place to reflect on what we’re thankful for or to remember fun family moments. Ask about highlights from the past year, favorite movie or TV show, and let the questions lead. Also, consider “priming the pump” by asking certain family members ahead of time to tell a funny story during the meal. “Hey, don’t forget when we’re all together to tell us about that time when…”
2. Hire the opposition.
In some families, controversial topics often erupt from one or two lovable troublemakers. If that’s the case for you, consider giving them a role during the meal to keep them occupied. If “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” (Proverbs 16:27, TLB), why not put those hands to work for you instead of against you? As a bonus, delegating responsibilities during the meal frees you up to do some conversation wrangling.
3. Debone arguments ahead of time.
“I have a bone to pick with you,” was my mom’s favorite foray into conflict. Our relatives may have “bones” with others at the table, and they take their seats just itching to pick them.
While we can’t force anyone to resolve conflict, we can encourage them to do it literally any other time. We start by asking ourselves if there are any issues we want to bring up with a family member, and aim to resolve it before the gravy boat sails. Sara and I have found the holidays to be an especially vital time to address our unresolved conflict and spend quality time together. Whether it’s a date night or booking a marriage retreat like the Weekend to Remember, there’s no better time to focus on your marriage. Even when time with extended family gets heated, there’s peace in knowing your spouse is on your team.
Once you’ve examined your own relationship dynamics, it’s time to reach out now to your high-risk-for-awkwardness relatives and ask a question like, “How are you feeling about seeing Grandma?” If there’s tension, help them find an opportunity to resolve it before the holidays.
4. Pivot away from controversial topics.
Cutting controversial topics off at the pass with a stark, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that right now,” can feel like spilling a whole can of awkward sauce on its own. Instead, follow by asking a genuine question about the person you’re stopping. “Hey, can we talk about that later? I was wondering though, how your Mediterranean vacation went?” It’s crucial to sit down at the table already knowing something to ask each relative about.
5. Pray a blessing over your holiday table.
Our family prays before a big meal—like, immediately before. I’m usually sneaking bites of stuffing before “Amen.” When your mind drifts to that upcoming meal, consider that a great time to talk to God about it. Feel free to ask for specific things—“Lord, would you help my grandfather to only speak kindly to Uncle Tim?” God already knows how that meal will go, so chatting with Him about it will be the most helpful thing you can do. Consider praying a specific verse (Philippians 4:8, for instance) over your family, and ask God what He wants the meal to be like.
These guidelines might not be able to prevent all of the holiday awkward conversations, but with some strategies at hand—and by praying for God’s help and intervention—we’ll be prepared to minimize the discomfort. There’s only one reason to feel uncomfortable during our holiday meals: from that great American tradition of stuffing ourselves silly.
Copyright © 2021 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Andy Allan provides care and logistical support for Cru missionaries serving abroad and writes for FamilyLife and other Christian ministries. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and two kids, Ellie and Bodie. You’ll find him biking Lincoln’s trails or watching the latest Fast and Furious movie. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @KazBullet.