How to Navigate Tricky Conversations at the Holiday Table

By Jessica Wolstenholm


In years past, we’d probably start an article like this with a joke about how we can always count on that crazy uncle to make holiday conversations a bit more . . . interesting. 

But Thanksgiving 2020? Anything can happen. 

Per tradition, the fun topics of weight, relationship status, religion, and “When are you gonna have that next kid?” are already on the table. And this year’s serving up a few new dishes: a worldwide pandemic, a tense presidential election, and a racial reckoning. 

Odds are, you won’t agree with your holiday companions about all of these things.

So what’s a turkey-lover supposed to do?

We’ve got you covered. Well . . . mostly. There’s nothing we can do about those crazy uncles. 

3 Things To Do Now For a More Peaceful Holiday Table 

Talk About Covid-Related Expectations 

It’s easy to assume that others see things the same way we do. Or that at the very least, that we understand one another. But, again, this is 2020. All bets are off. To ensure that your holiday dinner starts off on the best note possible, pick up the phone now. 

Call your host and ask, “With Covid in mind, how are you feeling about our get-together?” If you’re the host, reach out to your guests. Work together through some of the sticky details: 

  1. How many folks are too many?
  2. To mask or not to mask?
  3. Are we eating indoors or out?

Check in to make sure all parties are comfortable with the plan and committed to following through. You might find that you’re all on the same page already—great! You can breathe a sigh of relief. If not, take comfort in the fact that your preemptive conversation will make everyone feel more at ease on the big day. 

Decide How You’ll Respond in Awkward Moments

There’s nothing quite like getting cornered by a nosey relative on your way to get seconds or being caught up in the middle of an argument at the dinner table. Either way—your food’s getting cold, right? 

Be ready for the inevitable by thinking through some of the key points of contention you might encounter. Then consider how you’ll respond. 

Keep in mind that, more likely than not, your kids will be watching. They’ll get a front-row seat to how you handle tough moments. You can make the most of these opportunities with the responses listed below. 

Depending on the topic and the intensity you might: 

1. Ignore what’s being said. This one is simple, but it still takes guts. You can smile noncommittally and then change the subject, “Aunt Shirley, this pie is divine! Where did you get the recipe?”

Teachable Moment: Sometimes it’s better to choose relationships over being right. After all, it’s okay for good people—even God-fearing people—to disagree. 

2. Stand up for what you believe. You might feel compelled to speak up, especially if keeping quiet makes you seem complicit. Before you do, make sure to first listen well, clarify that you understand what you’re hearing, and consider the other viewpoint. Then, and only then, explain yourself. Your best bet is to keep it kind and keep it brief. 

Teachable Moment: You have the right—and sometimes the responsibility—to speak your mind. And you can have difficult conversations in a respectful manner. 

3. Shut things down before they get out of control. Do you see an argument brewing? Are you feeling attacked or witnessing another guest taking it especially hard? Draw a line in the sand. Start with, “I think it’s time we try a new topic of conversation.” And then, if necessary, “If we can’t move on from this, my family and I will need to leave.” 

Teachable Moment: Working through disagreements in a healthy way requires a safe space and people who are willing to stay calm. When those things aren’t present, you can stop the conversation. 

Plan A Few Fun and Engaging Activities 

Distraction is the mother of all argument prevention. By giving people something fun to do, they’ll have a tougher time focusing on negative issues. 

If you’re a guest, give the host another ring and volunteer to bring the fun. If you’re hosting, assign this role to a guest. A few ideas you might try: 

  1. Keep things simple by tossing the football. 
  2. Organize a pre-dinner Turkey Trot race around the neighborhood. 
  3. Bring a crowd-pleasing game like Codenames (for the adults) or Bop It (for the kids). 
  4. Ask everyone to bring one burning question for the group (Think: What’s the best show you binge-watched this year?). 
  5. Plan a contest for weird tricks and useless talents. Give guests a heads up so they can prepare.
  6. Argue about the things that really matter: 

Turkey or Ham?

Stuffing or Dressing?

Mashed Potatoes or Sweet Potato Casserole?

Pumpkin pie or Pecan Pie?

Homemade Cranberry Sauce or Canned Cranberry Sauce?

When you get home be sure to follow up with your kids about any tough conversations they may have witnessed. Listen to their concerns and reiterate the takeaways you hope they’ll retain. 

Our hope, of course, is that you enjoy a wonderful day regardless of how you’re celebrating and who you’re celebrating with.