How to Escape the Awkward Holiday Conversation

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May your days be merry and a little less awkward with these three strategies for avoiding uncomfortable conversations during the holidays.

They’re (almost) inevitable: those awkward holiday moments when you find yourself internally begging someone — anyone! — to change the subject. Maybe Dad is picking a fight about politics, Mom is asking invasive questions or your sister is criticizing your choices. Regardless, you are uncomfortable, anxious and unprepared to fix the situation.

You’re not alone. The holidays are ripe for discomfort. When “you’re family,” some people forget to respect boundaries and social pleasantries. Add a sprinkling of close proximity with no easy way out, and most are bound to feel anxious.

Wait! Before you throw in the fork, try these three ways to deal with the holiday family drama:

1. Set boundaries.

The Scenario: You’re recently single and feeling fairly insecure about it. You know the right person is out there, but it’s too soon to start looking. You’re feeling raw and rejected. And here comes Aunt Sue to ask you all about it (and add her two cents): “What went wrong?” “When are you going to get back out there?” “Do you have commitment issues?” “You know, no one really liked him/her anyway.”


The Fix: Establish boundaries. It’s kind of her to care about your life (right?), but if you’re not ready to talk about the topic, it’s absolutely fair (even necessary) to communicate your boundaries in a respectful, calm way. Assume she doesn’t realize her questions are making you feel uncomfortable — even family members cannot read your mind.


It Sounds Like: “I know you didn’t realize, but this is actually a sensitive (or difficult) subject for me and I’m not ready to talk about it…” and then change the subject (see below).


2. Change the subject to a neutral topic (you’ve prepared in advance).

The Scenario: Dad starts talking about those “Damn Libs” again and your ultra-Liberal significant other is trying to bite his/her tongue. Any moment, this rant is going to turn into a full-on verbal brawl if you don’t intervene.


The Fix: Change the subject. Chances are good most people are hoping for a topic change, too. If this is a common occurrence at your holiday table, be sure to prepare a few ideas in advance.


It Sounds Like:

  • Sports: “Who else is ready to see the Patriots beat the Dolphins on Sunday? I got a new jersey!”
  • Kids: “Hey, speaking of politics, did you guys know that Chris is running for class president?” or “Oh! I almost forgot to ask … Sam, how did finals go?”
  • Travel: “Dad — only a few more months until your Italy trip! I know a little bit, but tell me more about what you’re going to do there.”
  • Food: “What’s for dessert? Mom — did you make your pumpkin pie?” or “OMG this stuffing is the best you’ve ever made. Did you do something different?”


3. Be ready to stand up and leave.


The Scenario: Things have gotten really tense and/or have escalated into an inappropriate argument. Or maybe you’re just having an “anxious day” and being with the family is leading you toward a panic attack.


The Fix: Have a plan for getting out. This could mean taking a walk around the block (alone or with a person you trust), going back home or checking into a nearby hotel. If necessary, bring two cars so you can drive separately from your significant other. Just remember: leaving is always an option…


It Sounds Like: “I need a breath of fresh air. I’ll be back in 30.” Or “This situation is out of hand and I’m going home. Let’s talk when everyone has calmed down.” Or have your significant other tell the family, “John isn’t feeling well, so he headed back home. I’ll call him in a bit to make sure he’s doing ok.”


With the holidays on the horizon, it’s normal to feel anxious and nervous. If you dread the holidays because of the awkward conversations, the best thing you can do is prepare. I hope these tips help!


To your emotional health,

Dr. Dabney

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