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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Defusing The Holiday Dinner-Table Bomb

It seems that the American holiday tradition includes showcasing dysfunctionality in families. In a movie, or on television, it can be funny, though it's often the uncomfortable kind of humor that we laugh at, and not with.

In real life, it can be funny in retrospect - epic battles at the Thanksgiving table can be grist for the conversational mill of family reunions for years to come.

But while it's happening, watching what's supposed to be a festive event spin out of control is painful, and ultimately profoundly sad. It's the irrevocable ruination of a day that can't be brought back - and even if the fight's stopped and apologies tendered, it's never the same. Something is lost, and even if you schedule another 'make-up' dinner for next week - it doesn't come back.

What to do? I believe - I hope - that if you've read this far you'd like to avoid the fights, and create a holiday that's memorable for being peaceful and enjoyable. While you clearly can't control everyone's behavior, youcan control your own, and that can go a long way to spreading oil on those choppy waters.

Here are some suggestions -
  • Don't respond - most arguments start with baiting. Someone will try to get your goat, try to draw you out about something - anything! Try seeing yourself as a rock on the seashore, with waves breaking around you. The water comes in, and it goes out, but you remain, solid and serene. Even if the baiting intensifies, and I'll bet it will, The Rock is unmoved, and the unfortunate person who's trying to make you a target will, hopefully, move on to other pursuits.
  • Filter what you say - in any group of people, there will be a diversity of opinions on almost any significant topic. Before you throw a comment out there, give it some thought, and see if it passes this test...are you making it to a person you know will disagree, to get a rise out of them? We all do it, and it's called...see above..."baiting".Beyond that, if it's controversial, do you really have to air the subject? Chances are that your gathering will not have an immediate effect on, say, abortion, so why bring it up? (Please park the "you've got to be involved" thought at the door - we're talking about conversation at a single event)
  • Change courses - when you hear others' conversations heading south, jump in to pull one of the participants away - to the next room, outside, whatever. You may feel this is being something of a busybody, but it's not. You're protecting the interest everyone has in a peaceful event - and that's your interest, too.
  • Be firm - if you're the host, or have the host's permission, be firm in breaking up an incipient conflict. If you've got an unrepentant "bad boy", telling him to leave the room, or the house until he can control his mouth may be the only recourse. It's bad if the situation gets to this point, since a "please leave" will tend to hang in the air for awhile and chill the mood, but once a troublemaker is removed, folks will be quick to relax - quicker than you think.
  • Avoid dead time - idle hands are the Devil's tools, and idle time is what the Devil uses to create discord. Keep things moving, with planned and scheduled activities. It's also not a bad thing to maintain some sort of agenda for dinner-table conversation, things you can introduce that are both interesting and nonconfrontational.
  • Don't mourn - if, in spite of your best efforts, things get derailed, set an example by putting it behind you as quickly as you can. This involves attitude, choice of words, tone of voice...everything. Someone has to create a holiday miracle - be the miracle.
You may be thinking, "fine, great, but this won't work with MY family". Maybe not. But will making the effort make it worse? Probably not, so what do you have to lose?

You may also be wondering why you should be the one to carry the burden. The short answer is why NOT you? You're there, you have a vested interest in making the experience pleasant, and unless you secretly enjoy conflict, you're acting in your own interest. Besides, if you set an example, others will follow.

Give it a try. And good luck!

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