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We all carry them with us into holiday dinners—the questions we hope we won’t be asked. The questions we might be mulling over ourselves or reserving only for personal conversations with close friends or a therapist.

The questions we don’t have an answer to yet. The questions we wish we had an answer to. The questions that carry pain, hope or expectation with them. The questions that we never gave people permission to ask.

But they ask, don’t they?

At holiday dinners, with relatives and acquaintances we don’t see in our everyday lives, we often get asked some of the most personal questions about some of the biggest life decisions we make. Questions about what’s next—questions that can seem to imply where we should be or what we should be moving toward. 

The college student gets asked what’s next. The single woman gets asked about her dating life. The dating couple is asked when they’re getting married. The married couple gets asked when they’ll have kids. Those dealing with infertility or adoption get asked about their progress. The person grappling with a diagnosis gets pressed for information. 

It can feel like a record scratch moment when you’re asked a question you’re not ready for or don’t want to answer. Your mind swirls as you try to figure out how to answer. Your heart beats faster. Maybe your palms start to sweat. 

It can feel like a record scratch moment when you’re asked a question you’re not ready for or don’t want to answer.

Part of what makes these moments difficult is that they bring a weighty topic into a casual moment, and they take the conversation in a direction you were not planning on taking it. It’s important to have a plan, and “The Art of the Redirect at The Holiday Dinner” has four really important components.

Expect it.

Part of what makes these moments so uncomfortable is the surprise nature of being asked personal things you were not prepared to answer in a public setting. If you were asked through text or email even, you would have time to prepare a response.

Take the power back for yourself in that moment. Plan for uncomfortable or overly personal questions at holiday dinners. Who usually asks those kinds of questions? Assume they might ask them again this year. 

Take the power back for yourself in that moment. Plan for uncomfortable or overly personal questions at holiday dinners.

Bring your professional self.

Whether you have worked in a corporate office or as a babysitter or you’re a college student, you know how to keep it professional. Even in parenting, on the playground you know how to create boundaries and not get overly personal. Whatever your age, occupation or role, you have most likely had to navigate uncomfortable moments.

However, we forget all those skills when we are back at the holiday table, and suddenly we are 12 years old again. We are awkward and unsure. We forget that we are adults who know how to navigate the world. This is where it is important to bring your “professional self.” Yes, even to a family holiday dinner. Call on and pull from the parts of yourself that you use to respond to difficult situations in other areas of your life.

Set a boundary, and don’t negotiate it.

You don’t owe anyone anything. We often forget or maybe we just need to be reminded that just because something is asked of us, we do not have to comply. Your boundaries around what you want to share are not up for negotiation. You can be both firm and kind in your redirect away from a topic.

Interest from another person that doesn’t respect that redirect is not curiosity. It is refusal to respect your boundary.

Just because something is asked of us, we do not have to comply.

Take the wheel and turn the corner.

When we are asked a question that we are not prepared to or do not want to answer, it is like we find ourselves in the passenger seat of a car ride we were not prepared to take. Remember, you don’t have to go on this drive. Put yourself back in the driver’s seat of the conversation and change the topic. Ask a (non-personal) question back, or politely excuse yourself. 

This holiday season remember that you are no longer at the kids’ table for dinner. You are someone who has handled difficult moments in other parts of your life. Remember how capable you are. Prepare yourself for the questions you might get, and take the wheel of the conversation, redirecting it to the one you would like to have.

Have you ever been asked tough questions at a family dinner? How have you learned to breach these types of conversations?

Image via Frank Terry, Darling Issue No. 7

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