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Formerly St. Louis Center for Family Development
A person handling uncomfortable conversations at a family dinner.

15 Ways to Handle Uncomfortable Conversations at Family Gatherings

“Are you still single?”

“Can you believe someone would support that political candidate?”

“Did you hear about your relative/friend who…?”

If these are the sound bites from your family gatherings, it is not hard to understand how the conversations could get uncomfortable. You might even avoid going to these events altogether. And you’re not alone.

People of all ages and backgrounds grapple with the stress of attending gatherings where they may be confronted by very different beliefs, values and opinions of family members. This stress could manifest itself in a few sarcastic comments or more intense feelings of dread as the date draws closer. No matter what you are feeling, it is important to validate those emotions and consider the best options for your mental wellness.

Maintaining Wellness Ahead of Family Events

From shopping and cooking to gathering the mental energy to attend, preparing for a family occasion can be demanding. Practice self-care during times of stress to help maintain your balance: by exercising, getting quality sleep and eating nourishing foods.

Although Hallmark movies and perfectly edited social media posts might convince you otherwise, sometimes family gatherings just aren’t picture-perfect. And guess what? That is totally okay. You may even decide you are better off not going somewhere you know you will be uncomfortable. There’s no reason to feel guilty for making your wellness a priority. Spend that time doing something you love instead!

If you decide to go ahead and attend your family event, go with an open mind and be prepared with tips that can help you stay calm and collected.

How to Handle Uncomfortable Conversations with Family

1. Embrace a new perspective.

It is important to maintain realistic expectations about your family party. You may not have the time of your life — but that does not mean you should project negativity.

Reflect on these sentiments to help shift your outlook into a more positive realm:

  • “I feel hopeful this will be better than last time.”
  • “I appreciate my family for making time to be together.”
  • “I will be okay if this does not turn out like I hope it will.”

2. Choose a confidante.

You don’t have to go into a family event alone! Identify a cousin, spouse or partner, or other loved one you can vent to when you are uncomfortable. This person may already know best how to help you calm down in a stressful situation.

If your confidante is not already invited to the gathering, you may politely ask the host if they are willing to accommodate your guest. But be mindful of the host by asking at least one week prior and accepting their answer if it’s a “no.”

3. Set boundaries.

Maybe you know going into the event that Grandpa Joe can spin any topic into a political rant, and Aunt Irene can’t help herself from asking if you found a job.

In this and other situations, it is important to identify boundaries such as:

  • Who not to engage in conversation with;
  • Topics to avoid; and,
  • How long to stay in an uncomfortable setting.

4. Bring your own conversation starters.

One way to avoid touchy topics is to try other conversation starters. Try asking “What’s bringing you joy lately?” or “What was the highlight of your week?”

People may also appreciate the opportunity to talk about memories from their past. It can even be a chance for you to connect with and learn from older relatives. Ask them about a memorable vacation, their first car or a holiday tradition, and show that you’re interested by listening thoughtfully to their response.

5. Start the day on a positive note.

Make the most of the time before your family gathering so you are entering on a high note. Have a good day!

Stick with your normal morning routine if you are able. Have your favorite cup of coffee or listen to your favorite album while you are getting dressed. It may also be helpful to make time for a mindful walk or a phone call with a close friend.

6. Keep the conversation light, and then . . .

Focus on topics you are comfortable talking about, such as:

  • Hobbies
  • TV shows and movies
  • Travel
  • Books
  • Music

If your family member has children or pets, they will probably also appreciate you asking about them!

7. Ask your family to do the same.

Don’t be afraid to shut down a heated topic, such as politics or religion. You can do this in a firm and respectful way by saying, “I think we should change the subject. If you would like to continue on that, I’ll come back in a little bit.”

8. Use your time to help the host prepare or clean up.

If the thought of lingering over cocktails with your family members makes you uncomfortable, consider spending your time elsewhere!

Offer to help your host set the table, dish up the meal or pour beverages. You might even consider offering to supervise younger guests while they play together. There are plenty of other opportunities to be involved. 

9. Make a game out of it.

Adopt the role of a participant observer, and try to identify funny quotes to share with a friend (or your therapist) after the event. Be listening for:

  • The wackiest outburst
  • Comments that evoke a strong emotional response in yourself or others
  • Statements that cause an awkward silence
  • Funny observations from toddlers or children
  • Short, memorable stories

Believe it or not, your family party may provide conversation starters that can help you bond with others!

10. Acknowledge the good.

Reflect on gratitude for something you enjoy about the gathering, even if it’s your mom’s homemade cookies. Then, focus your efforts on these thoughts and emotions rather than lingering on the unpleasant aspects.

11. Listen first. Then respond.

We often formulate our thoughts and responses mid-conversation. However, this makes it much harder to listen.

Try to focus on active listening when you are engaged in conversation. Reflect and observe before responding. Taking a deep breath or a small pause can ultimately help keep your conversation on track better than plowing through talking points.

12. Use “I feel” statements.

“I feel” statements can be more helpful in a disagreement than “you are,” which may sound accusatory. For example, “I feel we should agree to disagree” is preferable to “You are never going to understand where I’m coming from.”

13. Be mindful of your limits.

Whether you get sweaty palms, a rapid heartbeat or flushed cheeks, your body will alert you to feelings of discomfort. Recognize those moments and be ready to pivot from the conversation — or respectfully remove yourself from it.

Retreat to another room (or even the restroom) to allow yourself some time to collect your thoughts. You can also step outside, if you need to!

14. Leave at the right time.

Don’t wait to head home until you are mentally or emotionally exhausted. Thank the host and make an exit when you notice your mood deteriorating. Much like the gas tank in a car, it is better to keep your positive energy fueled instead of running on empty.

15. Remember, you do NOT have to go!

Sometimes the best form of self-care is knowing when to say “no.” As we mentioned before, you do not have to go anywhere that is not helpful for you!

Find Your Best Self at Sparlin Mental Health

Family members can bring out the best and the worst in ourselves. Although no family is perfect, it is helpful to seek a mental health resource if family conflicts and other relationship difficulties are impacting your wellbeing. Find proven treatments from the compassionate team of local therapists at Sparlin Mental Health in St. Louis.

The mental health professionals at Sparlin will help you work towards your goals to maintain healthy relationships, and establish boundaries to reinforce your healing and personal growth. Ready to get started?

Contact Sparlin by phone at (314) 531-1155 to make an appointment, or submit a request online.