Smart Holiday Small Talk: Six Ways to Have Great Family Conversation

Be a great member of the family by encouraging positive conversation this holiday season.

With the holiday season upon us, you may have plans to see or host extended family members, whom you rarely see the rest of the year. While this provides a great opportunity to catch up and reconnect, it can also be a bit awkward to try to make conversation. Avoid the uncomfortable silences and enjoy the company of your distant family members with these strategies.

1. Gracefully navigate political conversations

While politics are typically a topic to avoid at all costs during family dinner, after the polarizing end to the 2016 presidential election, the topic is bound to come up, and it may seem rude to refuse to discuss it altogether.

Instead of sparking a shouting match, answer politely while also steering the conversation away from the controversial topic. No matter what candidate you voted for, aim to find common ground with your relative by first addressing something positive about the candidate that they prefer. From there, segue with a joke or a question like “What would be the first thing you would do if you were the new president?”

No matter how much you agree or disagree, avoid getting in too deep. A simple conversation between second cousins could quickly turn into a verbal brawl as the rest of the room adds their two cents on the matter.

This is even more critical if the alcohol flows freely at your family affairs. Politics and alcohol rarely lead anywhere positive, so tread lightly and pivot the conversation to a new topic as quickly as possible.

2. Learn about your roots

Because you probably don’t see many of these extended family members often, take advantage of this opportunity to have them help you fill in any missing blanks on your family history. As the years go on, family history gets dispersed and each person retains knowledge and stories that others may have completely forgotten about. Holiday conversation offers you a great opportunity to learn more about your family roots and answer any questions about your ancestors you’ve always been curious about.

If your ancestral inquiries fall flat and fail to produce much conversation, have a fun “would you rather question” in your back pocket to keep things interesting. For instance, “Would you rather time travel to meet your ancestors or go into the future to meet the next generations of your family?”

3. Find out about old family holiday traditions

If your family is rich with holiday traditions, this is a great opportunity to learn about the traditions of past generations. Saddle up to your great-aunt or grandfather and ask about the holiday traditions that they had when they were kids. This is a wonderful way to stoke your curiosity, learn about your cultural heritage and find new traditions you can incorporate into your current holiday celebrations.

4. Show interest in their kids

No matter how old a person’s children are, parents always love to talk about them. When conversation stalls, switch to this topic to avoid an uncomfortable silences. Ask about what their kids are up to these days and you will surely get the full rundown of what’s going on in their lives. You may even learn some interesting tidbits that can serve as conversation starters with your relative’s kids.

Depending on your own personal status, your relatives may use this as an opportunity to steer the conversation back to you and inquire about uncomfortable, sensitive topics. Questions like:

Gracefully handle these well-meaning but very personal questions by preparing a few answers in advance so that you aren’t caught off guard. The best approach is to be honest and direct with your answers, no matter how much you’d prefer to stonewall. Keep it short and simple and change the conversation back to something about them as soon as you can. A little mental preparation for these kinds of awkward interactions is the best way to make them less uncomfortable.

5. Ask about their pets

Despite the fact that cats versus dogs can be just as polarizing a topic as politics, asking relatives about their pets generally makes for an easy, light-hearted conversation. As with kids, pet owners love a chance to show off photos of their fur babies, so ask to see a picture of Fluffy and watch the conversation flow with minimal effort.

To keep the conversation going beyond the basics, ask your relative a zany question like, “If your pet could talk, what would you ask him?” The answer will likely be surprising and amusing and it may even draw more relatives into your conversation who are eager to answer the question as well.

6. Chat about dreams

One sure-fire way to start interesting conversation is to ask your family members what they would want to do in their next life and dig into what they hope to accomplish in the life that they have. There’s no wrong answer, and it could turn up all sorts of fun dialog among your group. Here are some questions to get you started. And remember, be supportive of whatever answer you hear.

Chatting with extended family is sometimes hard. Remember they’re well-meaning people and that despite the awkwardness, the relationships with them are valuable. Be present, listen, engage and enjoy the holidays together.