Ah, Christmas. For many of us, the night’s feast brings a chance to bond with our extended families over turkey, candied yams and buche de noel—to talk about the good old days and count our blessings.
For others, it’s simply the most unbearable night of the year. Why? Who doesn’t have some sibling, parent or uncle who’s always bringing his negative baggage or extreme political views to the table and foisting them on his poor captive-audience relatives?
How to avoid a Christmas dinner conversation disaster and make the most iconic meal of the year the merriest? We asked Paula Renaye, personal couch and author of The Hardline Self Help Handbook, for her tips for surviving an Eagle Rock Christmas dinner in style.
First off, she counsels, remember that you can take control of a downward-spiraling dinner conversation simply by thinking about what you choose to say—or not say. “If you hear yourself criticizing, judging or complaining, you’re part of the problem,” she says. “Happy, self-respecting people don’t find it necessary to dump on others to make themselves feel good.”
If someone else in your clan is the problem, simply don’t give him or her the ammunition they need, she says. Instead try these tactics:
- Before you say anything, decide on the outcome you want from the conversation. If you want to have a heartwarming exchange with people you care deeply about, then only talk about or do things that are going to get you that. Because seriously, is anything going to change because you complain about it? We all need to vent from time to time, but the Christmas dinner table isn't—or shouldn’t be—the occasion. So, here's a simple way to think about it: If you can't genuinely smile and feel good when you talk about it—don't.
- When other people insist on being negative, despite your best efforts not to join them, you can use what Renaye calls the “Dodge, Distract and Detour” technique. Let’s say everyone's gathered around the table and cousin Joe, after wrinkling his nose at your poor wine choice, says: "I see the disappointing chain link fence situation hasn't been resolved."
You instantly realize that Joe is trying to dish your way-south-of-Hill-Drive neighborhood. You don't have to go there. Try this instead: "Eagle Rock is an interesting neighborhood and that's what makes us unique. I know how much you appreciate unique—just look at your own home. I absolutely love what you did with the décor. Which country did that lovely piece in the entry come from?”
Handling Eagle Rock’s Hot-Button Issues
No matter the topic—from medical marijuana to massage parlors—you don't have to have a deer-in-the-headlights look or feel obligated to launch a political debate. Just because someone throws you a ball doesn't mean you have to catch it. So, here are a few more ideas on how to turn a potentially divisive conversation into a positive situation that everyone can feel comfortable with. Modify these responses with your own spin, of course:
Medical Marijuana: "There are many sides to that issue, aren't there? What fascinates me is how our views on things change over time. Back when Will & Grace first came on, I wouldn't let my kids watch it because it seemed inappropriate for them at their young age. Now, it seems so normal."
Massage Parlors: "The choices people make are interesting, aren't they? I have no desire to go bungee jumping, but it certainly fulfills a need for some people. We humans are a crazy bunch. What's the craziest thing you've done that you wish you hadn't?"
Dropping House Values: "Losing money and value aren't fun, but we'll get through this. And what a great place to get through it! I love it here! We are so lucky! Really, how could it get any better than this?"
Property Crime Rates: "It's all about feeling safe, isn't it? And so much of that starts between your ears. Sometimes we feel afraid simply because people tell us we should. Have you ever wondered why we don't keep statistics on random acts of kindness?"
Granted, not everyone is going to appreciate your Suzy Sunshine words—and that's OK, says Renaye. “If people really do want to commiserate and wallow, let them. Just take yourself out of the equation."
Other tips to navigate the evening:
- Do not say anything negative. Period. And no “one-downing”—the opposite of “one-upping”—which refers to the art of coming up with something worse when someone else talks about his or her problem. No matter how negative a statement—or how much you agree with it or don’t—resist the urge to respond with a negative.
- More Dodge, Distract and Detour. Turn things around with a question—a positive one. If you need to, make a “happy list” of questions in advance, so you’ll have some at the ready. And remember, there's no law that says you have to answer a question just because someone asked it.
- Do not talk about yourself. The only reason negative people care about what you’re up to is because they want something to ridicule, brag or gossip about to make themselves look or feel good. Don’t go there. Whether you just filed bankruptcy or won a Nobel Prize, keep it to yourself. No good can come of it. None. And why do you need to chatter like a chipmunk about yourself anyway? Might want to think on that one, too. Better to find some praise for someone else than to expect someone to praise you.
- Do not share your woes. Even if you’re in a tough place and could really use a shoulder to cry on, don’t start laying your woes on a Negative Nell. Even in a weak moment, when you’ve had a terrible day, talking about it with a negative person is a bad idea. You might get a microsecond of sympathy, but that will only serve as a launching pad for the negative person to tell you how much worse they have it. So: No talking about yourself—unless you want to be the talk of the party, the family and the town.
- Do your homework. Think of the times people said things that made you feel bad or made you feel the need to defend or explain yourself. If you want to avoid going down that trail again, start hacking away at the jungle of your own emotions. Get over needing anyone's approval or blessing. If you are still waiting for negative relatives to validate you, you’re in for a long wait. Don't set yourself up to be miserable. Get over it. And be prepared.