9 Ways to Gracefully Handle Awkward Moments During Holiday Dinners

These tried-and-tested strategies will help you keep the peace and maintain everyone’s sanity.

Hero Images/Getty Images
Hero Images/Getty Images

As much as we look forward to holiday gatherings, we can’t ensure that there won’t be some awkward moments. Opposing politics, thinly-veiled judgments about your life or career, and clashing personality types all at one table can make for some tense or uncomfortable moments.

That’s why we asked our Thrive Global community for their tried-and-tested strategies for deflecting awkward moments during holiday gatherings. From creating a distraction with a silly joke to turning the conversation toward something inspirational, here’s how they’ve risen above. Which of these stress-relieving strategies will you use?

Serve up a joke

“I deal with awkward family moments by having at least one joke in my head before the family gathering begins. Then, as the awkwardness emerges, I pull the joke out and serve it to the crowd!”

—Tom Anderson, COO, Denver CO

Use a “safe” word

“If we know that a potential hot topic is at play, we establish the game rules in advance and give everyone an ‘out.’ We pick a word that anyone can say during the conversation to terminate the discussion. Usually, the word is so out of context that the whole table quiets and there is usually laughter. Then, we agree to disagree and move on to another topic!”

—Michelle F., litigation support, Albuquerque, NM

Tell a meaningful story

“One of my battle-tested tips for handling those awkward moments at holiday gatherings is to tell a heartfelt story that activates empathy, compassion, and outward focus. Gently moving the focus from self towards a common thread that everyone can relate to will help unify the room. This strategy stimulates conversation based on experiences, versus opinions, judgments, and bad attitudes. In other words, gently redirect the group’s attention to something that is not personal or potentially inflammatory. Storytelling is powerfully soothing and uniting. Humor is another source for quelling the savage side of those we know and love. It’s important to keep in mind that we show up to these holiday shindigs because we are connected to these people! They are relatives or family of choice who may not possess the finesse or social intelligence we’d like, but there is connection there. Good, bad, or indifferent, the challenge is to soften our hearts, see the vulnerability of the other even if they are armored up with caustic words, and lean into the spirit of connection, which is where happiness lives. We receive the gift of that present moment when we are able to master our own reactivity and embrace the gathering as a mindfully navigated adventure.”

—Lisa Cypers Kamen, optimal lifestyle management expert, Los Angeles, CA

Pretend you’re watching yourself in a movie

“Ram Dass said, ‘If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.’ If we seize the opportunity, there’s a pathway for further development in these awkward moments during the holidays. When interactions get stressful, I imagine I’m watching a play or movie. Then, I notice what I see — both taking place on the stage in front of me, and in my own responses — without any intention or need to do anything about it except observe. Compassion can potentially arise from that kind of observation.”

—Dr. Barbara Vacarr, CEO, Stockbridge, MA

Ask people about their stories

Does Grandma ask when you're going to get a real job? Does Dad comment about the kids’ behavior? Those moments are awkward, uncomfortable and can escalate if you don't catch them in time. There have been times where our family members did just that and the way we handled it was to get curious about their story. If Grandma grew up during the Great Depression and was on welfare or food stamps at the time, there’s no doubt that she is coming from a place of fear from her childhood experience. Perhaps it comes out offensively, but if you can get curious about her story, the comments won't trigger you as much. Did Dad get punished a lot as a child? No doubt that he is also coming from that painful childhood story. Learning how to have compassion and get curious about others’ stories will help you stay calm and connected.”

—Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, M.S., LCPC, certified Imago therapist, Baltimore, MD

Count on a confidence mantra

“I believe that only we can make ourselves feel inferior. If a family member is making you feel bad about your job, your body, or anything else, repeat this self-assuring confidence mantra to yourself: ‘I only take advice from people living the life I want.’ Everyone is going to have an opinion about what you're doing. No matter what it is, someone isn't going to like it. Make sure the person who likes it is you.”

—Rebekah Storm, body confidence coach, Minnesota

Be diplomatic

“My husband is the youngest of 10 kids. Since there are so many of them and everyone is married to someone of different nationality, holidays with my in-laws are like a United Nations annual negotiation meeting. We have people who are Italian, Latin American, Moroccan, Indian, Russian, Canadian, and Persian. Add in the kids that range from one to 29 years old, and we end up with many opposing views, awkward moments and tension. It used to be extremely difficult to manage this in the past. However, I’ve learned to be diplomatic in recent years. Keep everything at surface level and the bigger picture in mind. I now understand their judgements are their projections, and that doesn’t take value away from my everyday life. I think the best way to handle large family get togethers is with humor and a bit of disconnect.  

—I.M., wealth insurance consultant, New York NY

Let the kids lead

“For the purposes of brevity, I’ll say that the one practice which has saved me from revisiting one disastrous Thanksgiving past is the mantra, ‘Bite your tongue,’ and not with the Turkey in your mouth! Never bring up as politics, religion, divorce, amounts of money made, or amounts of money owed. Finally, it is a safe practice to let the younger ones at the Thanksgiving table do all the speaking. We find honesty, bewilderment, interesting questions, silly thoughts (a true lifesaver) and love from the mouths of children. They may be brutally honest about the dry turkey, but they will save you from ridiculous arguments and resentment, prevent the family dining room table from rocking, and create stability.”

—Cara Lembo, MBA, caregiver and tutor, Ocean County, N.J.

Remember that laughter is the best medicine

“I have family in the UK, and since my wife is British, and never fail to mess up while visiting there over holidays. One way to laugh it off is to pretend you're really clueless and joking. So when they mention a big UK holiday football match, mention another sport team (like the NFL) to obviously get it all wrong. Laughter is always the best medicine — second only to alcohol — at family events. Plus, they get to seem superior in football knowledge, which obviously they are. Seriously though, I have had many, many odd moments with my relatives and it’s best to not draw too much attention and switch the topic quickly. You're not going to change people's beliefs, but you can plant a seed. Family is tough and you never know how people will react.”

—Jared Brick, founding media director, Santa Cruz, CA  

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