Heading into the Holidays: Reducing Drama During Dinner


Many commercials and memes joke about strained family dynamics that often arise during the holiday season. However, for many of us, it’s seriously not that funny.

While most “group conflict” can be stressful, there are two different types that arise.

Interpersonal Conflict – Conflict Due to a Clash of Beliefs

The first type of conflict is interpersonal in nature. This occurs, for example, when our political views and personal choices differ from those of certain family members. For whatever reason, someone decides that a holiday dinner is the perfect time to engage in serious commentary and debate around contested topics. Even if we do not initiate these discussions, most of us may be provoked into responding to and engaging in them. Rarely does either party to polarized debates suddenly “give up” their views, even over turkey and stuffing. Instead, the tense and unnecessary dialogue reinforces division instead of unity, creates hurt feelings and results in generalized discomfort for anyone held captive to the dinner conversation, even where they are not actively involved in the conversation.

Unilateral Conflict – Conflict Because of One Person’s Behavior

The second type of conflict is unilateral. This happens when one friend or family member speaks or behaves in a way that causes others to feel devalued, intimidated, embarrassed or frightened. This person might, in the name of passion, culture, religion, humor or other grounds, shame, belittle or mock others’ physical appearance, work and life choices and otherwise. In addition to direct “attacks”, they might ignore certain people or triangulate the family through gossip and secrecy. This dysfunction does not necessarily result from a specific disagreement with someone – it’s simply rooted in one person’s decision to behave in a way that disrupts the environment and causes damage and discomfort to those around them. Their behavior, regardless of their motivation, creates tension and over time, destroys trust.

What To Do?

In order to make holiday dinners more digestible, I’d recommend the following:

  1. Do not initiate or actively continue potentially divisive discussions during holiday festivities. Understand that there are likely diverse political viewpoints, life experiences and personal choices around the table. Appreciate that some of those at the table do not want to engage in political or polarizing dialogue and would prefer to keep the party light. It is not the time to hold others captive to unnecessarily intense discussions or to focus on subject matter that would reasonably make others feel uncomfortable, unsupported or disrespected.
  2. Don’t bring your past hostilities to dinner. There are many legitimate venues and opportunities in which to raise historical concerns with someone who has hurt you; a communal family dinner is not one of them. When you choose to raise “personal issues” with someone in a group setting, it may be seen as shaming (regardless of your intention). Further, you risk creating an experience of discomfort and disrespect for everyone at the table.
  3. If someone tries to initiate a political or polarizing discussion with you, or causes discomfort or disrespect in what they say or how they interact with you:
  1. Disrupt the dynamic by changing the topic and “switching things up” – you could change topics, ask someone else a completely different question, excuse yourself to go to the washroom or help out the host in some way. In doing so, you don’t make the situation worse by allowing the discussion or disrespect to continue or by adding to the dysfunction by lecturing or scolding the person loudly in front of others (which, again, could be considered shaming). This “stops the damage” by putting an end to the problematic discussion or behavior. You can determine what further steps, if any, you wish to take later on and in a more appropriate setting.
  2. If your initial efforts to respectfully “distract and disrupt” this dynamic do not result in a positive change, then you are welcome to identify the concerning behavior and ask them clearly to stop – and yes, in front of others. Clearly and respectfully explain that you are not comfortable with the discussion/dynamic (be specific where possible) and explain that you would prefer to spend the time getting caught up on what others around the table have done over the year.
  3. If this does not help, then disengage entirely. This may mean that you need to leave the situation, either for a few minutes or perhaps longer. The fact that someone is family – and this is the holiday season where many get together – is not license for anyone to disrespect your wishes and boundaries particularly after they have been clearly and respectfully communicated.
  4. Sometime after this event, you may choose to have a 1:1 conversation with this person about what transpired. This discussion would be the MIRROR conversation that I detail in my latest guide, “Walking on Eggshells? A Practical Guide to Resolving Stressful Conflict at Work and Home”: see, in particular, the sections on “Taking it Home”. This could include:
    1. A conversation to further explore a previously discussed topic, viewpoint or comment with which you disagree. This often involves a mutual willingness to learn about contrary political viewpoints and worldviews. It requires the willingness to listen as much as it does to speak.
    2. A conversation in which you set clear boundaries regarding inappropriate comments or conduct towards you. If someone made offensive comments to you regarding your appearance, personal life, culture, race, religion, age (and otherwise) or they spoke to you in a threatening or sexualized manner or they were found to be spreading malicious rumors about you to others in the family, then this needs to stop. Setting a non-negotiable boundary is not “up for discussion” but it needs to happen through a discussion.

You don’t have to believe me – simply try out these tips and see what happens! In doing so, I suspect (and genuinely hope) that you will experience a relatively more peaceful holiday season.

Whether or not you use these tips or others, it’s critical to remember one thing: someone else’s disrespect will not justify your own. When you react to perceived disrespect in a disrespectful manner, you are going to be viewed as part of the problem rather than the solution.

You have a right to respectfully set boundaries around what is “up for discussion” and how you expect to be treated. You have a right to respectfully “speak up” when someone violates those boundaries. However, you don’t have a right to “match” someone else’s problematic behavior with your own version of disrespect by, for example, engaging in public or personal counter-attacks, shaming or divisive posse-building.

At the end of the day, holidays can and should be a wonderful time to recharge from the stress and fatigue of the chaotic world in which we work and live. This happens when we use our time together to express gratitude and appreciation for all that we have; and focus on what brings us together rather than what sets us apart.

I am excited to announce that on Thursday, Dec 15 (back by popular demand!), I will be hosting a 45-minute complimentary webinar at 10:00 am PT. This webinar will provide you with some tips on reducing drama over the holiday season. These tips apply with equal vigor to staff meetings, lunchrooms, and otherwise. To sign up, contact us through our website or email Shelley at [email protected].


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