Kathleen Purvis

Make Thanksgiving about the food, not the fight

Deb McNeill
Deb McNeill

You know the Drunk Uncle skit on “Saturday Night Live”? This may be the Thanksgiving when it doesn’t seem so funny anymore.

Bringing together a diverse crowd of people – far-flung family, eclectic friends, different age groups, a long day of eating and drink – always runs the risk that your holiday table will be less Norman Rockwell tranquility and more Jackson Pollock chaos.

This year, though, feels different. More uncomfortable. More fraught with potential arguments and hurt feelings. Even my priest, Father Josh Bowron, brought it up during a sermon at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church: “Raise your hand if Thanksgiving is all of a sudden an anxious event.”

Usually, when I write about conversation starters for Thanksgiving, it’s pretty easy. Ask kids which dish they look forward to all year. Ask your great-aunt the earliest Thanksgiving she can remember.

This year, though, you may need to be prepared for tense discussions. So I called two family therapists, both licensed clinical social workers who are also divorce coaches, for advice. And yes, their clients are talking about it, too.

“I don’t like to make assumptions,” says Caroline Biber. “Assuming people are going to automatically disagree can lead us to be prepared for a family fight.” But with family, you probably already know where the fault lines are.

“A lot of people right now feel not speaking up is more difficult. How do you express yourself in a respectful way and still honor and understand that not everybody is in the same place?”

The first thing counselor Deb McNeill suggests is what we’ve heard so many times in the last two weeks: Be willing to listen. Listening doesn’t mean you agree, it just means you’re listening.

“It’s therapy-cheesy, but it’s true and it works: Repeat it back. ‘What I hear you saying is . . . ‘ You don’t have to agree.

“You have to weigh the intentions. Is it so important that you can’t just hear and disagree?” Our brains are wired in a way that triggers a fight-or-flight response when we get into an argument. She asks clients to count to 10 before they respond, to let that pass.

You also have to acknowledge your own feelings, McNeill says. “If you want someone to hear it, own it. And that’s using ‘I’ statements.” If you say “you,” people feel attacked.

“It’s better to say, ‘Here’s how I feel.’ If you start to use the word ‘you,’ back up and use the word ‘I.’ 

Try a little distraction if things get heated, says Biber. Maybe it’s time to check the football score, or ask someone to help you in the kitchen.

“Changing up the dynamics a little can redirect it enough so people can get through that and de-escalate.”

That doesn’t mean that you don’t get to set boundaries on how people can act toward you or people around you.

“This is some pretty tough stuff out there,” says McNeill. “And if somebody is being hurtful and offensive, you may need to say, ‘I get that we disagree, but I cannot allow you to treat me this way.’ 

One thing from both of them: While you’re doing all that listening, you get to acknowledge your own feelings, too.

“We can’t just tell people to get over it, we can’t tell them it’s not important,” says McNeill. “We sometimes just have to accept other people. We don’t know their pain and we can’t measure it against ours. I don’t accept the opinions, but accepting the people is what I’m trying to do.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

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