You Can Save Thanksgiving with the Right Key Message

Ah, family holidays.

For some of us, they’re warm, relaxed opportunities to catch up with people we love and don’t see often enough.

For others, they’re living hell.

When you mix alcohol, proximity, and long-held resentments with people who don’t much want to behave, you’ve got all the ingredients for an explosive feast of flaring tempers and angry words.

What’s a guest, or a host, to do?

Thanksgiving Meltdowns are Predictable – Be Forewarned and Forearmed

First, do some thinking, or brainstorm with your spouse, kids, or trusted friend before T-Day. Ask yourself:

  • What is likely to go wrong at this dinner?
  • Who’s likely to act out, and what are their hot buttons?
  • What are your hot buttons? (In other words, what could someone do or say that would tempt you to join a conflict against your better judgment?)

Usually, the factors—and people—that are likely to veer out of control are pretty predictable. Your Mom sniping at your sister, who got a new tattoo? Uncle John’s drunken eulogy for Paul Ryan’s VP bid? Cousin June’s discussion of how people who think that Hurricane Sandy had nothing to do with climate change (like her husband) are really, really stupid?

It’s all pretty predictable, right?

So now’s the time to think about how each of these situations could  best be defused.

Choose a Key Message Before the Event

When you’re done thinking, pick one sentence that you’ll commit to memory and repeat ad nauseum (’till everyone’s sick of it) when the fireworks start.

This sentence, otherwise known as your Key Message, should be the single, most important thing you have to say—not from the point of view of actual conversation, which these situations are not, but from the point of view of cooling things down.

For example:

  • To Mom (who’s hassling your sister): “I’m just glad that we could all be together today.”
  • To Uncle John, who loves Paul Ryan: “I’m sure he’ll get another shot.”
  • To Cousin Jane, who would have known better than to live by the ocean: “Hey, no arguing in front of the turkey!”

Now, of course, if you like arguing in front of the turkey, and if your crowd can do it without bringing out the knives, by all means, indulge! I’m talking about how to shut down “conversations” that only one person wants to have.

Whatever Happens During Thanksgiving Dinner, Stick to Your Key Message

Now here comes the hard part:

No matter what your Mom, or Uncle John, or Cousin June say, keep repeating your key message. Be as ruthless as a politician who’s ducking her constituent’s questions, or a Wall Street banker avoiding blame. Just keep repeating your Key Message until you’ve totally worn your opposition down, like this:

Mom: Your sister looks ridiculous.

You: You know, I’m just glad we could all be together today.

Mom: You can’t really approve of that hideous new tattoo?

You: You know, I’m just glad that we’re all together.

Mom: She’s getting more outlandish every day. She’s never going to get a decent job the way she looks.

You: Mom, it’s Thanksgiving. Aren’t you glad that we’re all together?

I won’t write another six rounds of this; you get the point.

Stay Alert and Flexible

Of course, the fact that you’re only saying one thing doesn’t mean you can go on auto-pilot. Instead, stay relaxed yet attentive, like a Ninja on coffee break.

And be particularly aware that you might get hit with a lateral sneak attack, when your opponent realizes that his or her Plan A isn’t working:

Mom: Of course you would stand up for her! You looked just as ridiculous as she does when you were her age.

You (take a breath and let it out slowly): Well, I still think it’s great that we’re all together for Thanksgiving.

As long as you’re cool, calm, collected, and implacably sticking to your point, you will ultimately win the day.

This is hard work, but much less difficult than getting drawn into a silly screaming match when all you want to do is eat too much and get home in time to watch the game.

So remember:

  1. Think this through before you arrive;
  2. Pick a Key Message that’s likely to defuse things; and
  3. Repeat as needed, ad nauseum.
And be grateful that you’ll have a year off before you have to face it again!