Navigating awkward conversations at Chrissy

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Navigating tricky topics at christmas

It’s the end of another wild year and we’re being asked (and in some cases, expected) to jump into gatherings and celebrations with various groupings of humans.

At this time of year there’s a lot of talk about how to talk to other people (often our relatives), about tricky topics – from gender and gen0cide, climate emergencies and cost living, fertility and dating, weight and appearance. Its often up for discussion when families get together.

How we navigate generational and socio-cultural gaps in our families and have a ‘pleasant enough’ day amongst the potential triggers, button pressing and pattern poppers can take a bunch of forethought, energy and risk!

I had the opportunity to chat to Tom Tilley on The Breifing podcast about the complexity of families, the festivus and feelings which you can listen to here. I’ve popped together this summary to help you upskill on shifting conversations and being able to enjoy the gathering with less conflict and awkward small talk.

This time of year highlights a triple threat:


  1. The nature of family is evolving

As we develop stronger friendships and communities the role of our relatives can dwindles.  We are learning the importance of having  clearer boundaries and are more aware the need to monitor and manage ourselves around the people who we have ingrained patterns with.

Our sense of family can take on a broader meaning beyond consanguinity (the fancy word for blood ties) and encapsulate a sense of community and belonging which is so central to our wellbeing. We might find us distancing ourselves from people or parts of our family and letting go of old ways or ‘traditions’. This often happens with the grandparents of a family pass away and the ties that bind siblings and their kids fade.

  1. The meaning of Christmas is shifting

Society in increasingly secular and the centrality of the birth of Jesus is waning. The relevance of this time of year gravitates more towards the opportunity to rest, reflect and reset as we usher in a new year (as arbitrary as that might be). There’s often high expectations of being jolly, jingly, merry and bright, and this can feel in tension with current world conflicts and the state of the planet.

  1. We’re mostly exhausted and already a bit emotionally frayed.

Getting to Christmas often feels like ambling across a finish line and that we need a week to prepare for the day itself. While many people crave some downtime and quiet, Chrissy gatherings can be quite the opposite.  The emotional pressure to be festive and not run the vibe can itself be exhausting. Add in a sweet cherry or a shandy and hooley dooley, the emotions erupt!

Dealing with family, the personalities and patterns takes a bit of a mindset shift and courage to reset and re-establish ways of being.  There is the ‘suck it up sunshine’ approach which is sometimes needed for self-preservation and totally legit, but increasingly there’s the drive to ditch the outdated, inauthentic and offensive.

Here are my pointers for making it through your Christmas* commitments:


+ Rest up the night before

Where possible get a good sleep and unwind beforehand so you’ve got some social spoons to help you manage your emotional energy for the gathering (whenever your family might get together). Being tired can make your trigger fuse shorter.

+ Plan your arrival and ‘escape’ times.

Have a clear sense of when you are going to arrive and when you need to depart. If you have someone you are arriving and/or leaving with, make a plan for how you will signal if you need to make an early departure (yep the ‘safe word’ can be deployed here if you feel psychologically unsafe or unable to stay in the situation).

+ Have some conversation starters ready

One tactic is to take control of the conversations and be on the front foot of the cliched questions that you might come your way. Rather than completely avoiding or shutting down a conversation, lead with it and get it out of the way.

Some examples:

  • Nope, still haven’t caught one of those many fish I keep hearing about Aunty Sharon, I’d better go and check my bait.
  • I guess you might be wondering about <insert the topic people nag you about> I still don’t have any news to share with you, but when I do you’re on the list of folks to tell.

+ Prep and practice scripts and statements

Yep, actually spend some time to gather your thoughts and rehearse saying some key phrases and talking points so you can feel more confident with how you want to express yourself, your position or ideas and communicate with clarity.

You might even want to communicate ahead of time with family about where you’re at and what you’d appreciate.  An example here might be someone recently bereaved. Often when you’re grieving there is a fear your grief will bring others down, you really don’t want to be asked ‘how are you?’ as the truth is hard to gloss over.  So you might ahead of time send an email to key people requesting they avoid talking about your loss.  I love Justin Coulson’s recent post on navigating grief.

+ Presume positive intent

Recogise that people are often attempting to connect with you.  Even Uncle Barry with his racist jokes or attempt to start a conversation with what he heard ‘Lawsie’ talk about on the AM radio. Sure, it might feel weird or inauthentic if they haven’t lifted a finger or a phone to reach out all year but when we shift to seeing the attempt to connect we can gently move the conversation on to something you have in common (or at least something neutral and anodyne).

Get curious and be compassionate towards people who might hold extreme, racist, sexism, conspiracy based beliefs.  We can learn to argue well and rather than debate truth/facts/information, explore how and why people arrived at those conclusions.  This isnt to condone their viewpoints but to be able to have empathy with the experiences, judgements and vulnerabilities that create these beliefs.

+ Be willing to name it to tame it

This can be a bit badass and takes some of the practice I suggest above, but in some instances and with some people you might actually feel empowered to label how a conversation or topic makes you feel. This is a bit more than just ‘let’s agree to disagree’ (thought that is a handy old chestnut) and might be something like ‘I’m feeling like we come from really different perspectives on this and right now is not ideal for getting into the nitty gritty of <insert topic>’.  Or ‘Talking about this can be really upsetting for me and I dont feel like going into this today, I think it’s best to leave the conversation there’. When things veer into the ‘advice giving’ space, it might be that you simple say ‘I appreciate you intention, but lets leave this for me to discuss with my therapist!’ so that we can gently reframe conversations while setting a boundary.

Families are complex constellations of humans and their unique sacks of behaviours and experiences, all bumping into one another.  Christmas carries emotional weight that can place pressure on us to ‘play happy families’. When we can step back and recognise this, prepare ourselves with some reframed perspectives and scripts to get through – we can get through the sometimes tricky festive waters

I also really love this cheatsheet on talking to your family (factually) about politics this Christmas


*or Eid, or Hannukah or Diwali