A woman standing looking frustrated with her hand beneath her chin in a dining room

“What to Say When” is a Darling series written to equip you to engage others in hard situations with thoughtfulness and kindness. 

It’s the holiday season! Nearly everyone is familiar with a slight (or significant!) level of anxiety about family gatherings around the holidays. If you anticipate you might have conflict at your family holiday gathering, then you’re not alone. Read below to learn what not to say, what to say and other things to consider.

What Not to Say

“This is exactly why I didn’t want to come tonight.”

It’s tempting to say this, but fatalistic statements escalate conflict. Even if it is true that you did not want to come, do your best not to say it in the heat of the moment.

“You always…”

Always/never statements feel good because they make us feel like we are expressing the full strength of our emotions. The problem is that those statements are rarely true! They also put the listener in a defensive stance. 

If your mom is offering advice for how you should cook and you say, “Mom! You always correct the way I do things!” She is likely to say, “No I don’t!” The conflict only escalates from there. 

If you feel so frustrated you cannot let it go, then try taking her aside and talking with her. Say things like, “Mom, when you offer advice that way, it frustrates me because it makes me feel like you think I’m incompetent.” Instead of putting her on the defensive about whether she always or never corrects you, she can address the core issue: your frustration that she thinks you’re incompetent.

“Where did I go wrong with you?”

Have you ever heard an older person say this to a younger family member at a holiday gathering? Talk about uncomfortable! When we disagree with family members, it is tempting to move toward condemning statements like this. However, shame rarely changes people’s minds. This hurtful statement is likely to exacerbate conflict instead of diffuse it.

An angry couple at a dinner table

What to Say

Before the holiday

“Do you have any hopes or expectations about our holiday gathering?”

Before the family gathering, communicating any expectations can prevent conflict before it happens. Calling your relatives a couple weeks before the holidays can lay the groundwork for a good experience.

You might specifically ask about expectations for a few things: sleeping arrangements, children’s schedules, meal preparation, time to be alone each day, gifts, how/when to open gifts and whether guests or pets are welcome. 

No one will get everything they want during the holidays. It’s important to adjust expectations ahead of time. If you talk about it first, then you have more time to compromise to make sure everyone has an outcome they can live with.

“Can we agree that this year we will not discuss ______?”

If you have a routine family conflict over politics, or religion or any topic, then consider bringing it up ahead of the holiday itself. You might add, “I’d love to avoid this topic so that we don’t have unnecessary conflict over it. I really want to enjoy the time we get to have together, and there are so many things we can talk about that won’t be divisive.” Communicating ahead of time can be really helpful.

Communicating ahead of time can be really helpful.

During the holiday

“What are you thankful for this year?”

It may feel cheesy, but there’s a reason people love this question! Expressing gratitude has clear psychological benefits. Make sure to listen carefully because people’s answers will give you something to ask more about later.

“How did you celebrate this holiday when you were a child?”

This question is great for grandparents and newer in-laws and guests. For older people at the table, they can share stories of what their life was like decades ago and how they celebrated; ask about specific foods and specific people in the story.

For newer in-laws and guests, they might feel like an outsider at the holiday. This is a way to invite them to share about their lives.

During a conflict

“I know this is a really hard topic for us. Maybe we can take a break from it. I care about you, and I don’t want this disagreement to dominate the in-person time we get to have together.”

There are times to work through conflict. Around the dinner table with multiple people present isn’t one of them. Try to de-escalate the conflict by acknowledging the issue, suggesting a break and focusing on the relationship.

If you anticipate there will be conflict at the holidays, then it’s good to write out what you want to say to de-escalate. Practice saying it out loud so it doesn’t feel forced or weird. 

After a conflict

“I’m sorry.”

If you have an angry outburst, saying sorry is the best place to start. In the heat of the moment, we can lose control and say things we shouldn’t or say things we should but in a tone we regret.

Good apologies don’t have qualifiers. Refrain from adding, “but I just can’t believe you really think that!” to the end of your “sorry.” Family holidays typically don’t offer enough time or space to work out long-standing conflict, but saying sorry sets the stage for reconciliation later.

Good apologies don’t have qualifiers.

“I can see that we both feel really strongly about this. It is hard for me that we disagree, and it seems like it’s hard for you too. I’m sad we’re in this conflict. I would love to spend the rest of this family gathering focusing on the things we have in common.”

It can be tempting to pretend conflict didn’t happen or come to an insincere resolution on an issue that is important to us. This response steers clear of those temptations.

Things to Consider

Holidays can feel like a litmus test for everyone’s life.

Holidays raise tough questions for people at every stage of life. For parents and grandparents, it might be, “Did I do a good job as a parent?” For young adults, it might be, “Am I on track for the things expected of as an adult?”

For siblings, it might be, “Have I accomplished what I should have in relation to my family members?” For everyone, it can be a time to ask, “Do I have a place where I belong?”

These are really evocative questions. The holidays are easier when we have grace for each person at the table.

Prepare some easy conversation topics.

While we know politics and religion can be intensely divisive, it’s hard to come up with an easier topic in the heat of the moment. If you think ahead, then you can be prepared to talk about things you have in common, like your respective sports teams, non-fiction books or a new museum or attraction in your city.

A week or so before, you might email an interesting article to your family and say, “Would love to hear your thoughts on this next week!” Think about the people who will be there and what you know about their hobbies and interests. Come up with a few go-to questions before you arrive.

Have you found good ways to navigate tension at family holidays? Tell us your thoughts!

Images via Mike Mellia, Darling Issue No. 15

2 comments

  1. As someone who has their fair share of tense family dinners (especially during the holidays) this is so helpful! I love that you included topics for every part of a celebration.

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