Need to navigate tricky conversations at the holiday dinner table? Check out these tips
Oof. Most years many of us try to gloss over, or just get through, family issues during the holidays. But this is 2020, and as we barrel toward Thanksgiving and the holiday season in the midst of a pandemic, an ongoing racial justice movement and a contentious election and its aftermath, just ... wow. Nobody could be blamed for wanting to hide under the covers until New Year’s Day.
Since that’s probably not an option, I wanted to get some insights from a mental health expert to help us through the gauntlet of family meals looming ahead. Dr. Kevin Chapman is a Louisville-based licensed clinical psychologist and founder and director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. He weighed in on how to navigate the holidays in 2020.
But before you can even tackle the "what do I say to the uncle who disagrees with me on every single thing I find important" issue, there's a bigger question to ask yourself this holiday season: should you even go to or host a holiday gathering?
For some, the most difficult conversations may come ahead of the holidays. How do you decide whether you’ll even join your family? Whether it’s out of concern for keeping everyone safe during a still-raging pandemic or because you know there will be a blow-up at some point among family members over politics or other issues, you may be considering sitting this one out.
In making that call, “weigh the pros and cons in advance,” Chapman says. Knowing your family, what can you expect to happen if you tell them you’re not coming this year, and how does that weigh against what happens if you do go?
If you decide it’s for the best for everyone involved to skip the family get-together, that’s likely to be cause for family distress. But don't let that dissuade you. If you truly feel uncomfortable attending a holiday gathering, it’s important to stick to the facts when sharing your decision, Chapman said, and not base it on feeling.
Feelings can cause people to take things personally. If you’re not going because you’re concerned your older family members are at risk of getting sick, say so, and bring in the facts, he says, like the number of cases surging recently in Kentucky, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines which recommend limiting the number of people at an indoor gathering, reducing the length of time you'd normally spend together during a holiday meal and practicing safe social distancing and mask-wearing practices, among other tips.
You can soften the blow, he says, by planning to join by Zoom or Facetime, so you’re not completely isolating yourself.
“You can still convey your love,” he says, but stand your groundif skipping the meal is the best thing for your physical — or mental — well-being, not to mention that of your family.
If you’ve made the decision to physically join your family — hopefully in a small, socially distanced group —and know there are differences in opinion over very strongly held beliefs and opinions, there are some key things you can do to make sure Thanksgiving isn't ruined by a screaming match before the turkey is even sliced, Chapman says.
It starts with preparing yourself.
Before even getting there, he suggested you be prepared with flexible thoughts. “Most people don't do that. And they don't plan in advance to have potentially uncomfortable discussions.”
If you know it’s not going to end well, it’s critical to be able to regulate your emotions and plan how you’ll respond. That can be having a mantra you repeat to yourself as simple as “their problem, not my problem.” Now that doesn’t mean we have no responsibility in addressing injustices, Chapman says. It just means when we’re sitting across the table from a relative, blowing up at them doesn’t accomplish anything, and in fact, can confirm their opinions.
A helpful technique when a situation triggers a strong emotion, he says, is called anchoring in the present. When someone says something upsetting, “I'm going to inhale through my nose for four seconds and exhale out my mouth for six seconds before I say a word,” he says. “And then I'm going to do what I call a three-point check, which is saying to myself, ‘what am I thinking right now, what am I feeling right now, what am I doing or want to do right now?’ That's going to give me the ability to respond in the present moment.”
As for how to respond, first, be honest with yourself and think about what you want out of the interaction. If it’s just to cuss them out, “I don’t really have much to say,” he says.
But if it’s to honestly try to help them understand another perspective, turn to evidence-based questions.
These disputing questions, as he also calls them, require them to respond with facts. So if, for instance, a family member says there will be rioting after a fill-in-the-blank contentious event, ask them what the evidence is that that will happen. Follow up with, "are you 100% sure?" Evidence-based questions squash the complainers, he says, because if they can’t back up their statement with facts, it’s just their opinion.
Critical through all of this, he emphasizes, is regulating your own emotions. “It's like you are literally are becoming your own psychologist at the dinner table,” he says.
“The thing with people who are dogmatic in these situations is that I have to be as regulated and as evidence-based as possible,” he says. “Otherwise, I'm going to confirm their stereotypes about my opinion."
So despite how angry you become, Chapman says to channel your inner strength.
"You stand your ground, you convey your point, but you do so in an educated, evidence-based way and they can't argue that," he said.
It’s also helpful to identify your allies in the family, he says, the person or people who will have your back and"help me having this conversation."
If you don’t have one ally? Maybe it’s better to stick to Zoom in 2020.
One more parting tip. As tempting as it may be to try to soothe frazzled nerves with a glass of wine or a pour of bourbon — or three or four — in these situations, “it's usually never a good idea to introduce alcohol in a situation where there's going to be a heated exchange,” Chapman says.
“That’s a truth serum. You know what’s going to happen.”