How Your Tense Thanksgiving Dinner Conversations Can Help You at Work

You have every reason to expect tensions will be high around the Thanksgiving dinner table this year. Even before the pandemic was thrown into the mix, many already viewed the holidays as a stressful time. After all, it can be nerve-wracking to sit down to a Thanksgiving feast only to face a line of questioning from loved ones. But as it turns out, these tense dinner conversations might better equip you for tough talks at work, too.

From addressing angry customers, upset about backordered Christmas gifts, to co-workers facing school closures over Covid-19 outbreaks, the best advice may be to embrace the discomfort and imbue empathy. That’s according to Amanda Ripley, the bestselling author of The Smartest Kids in the World, who is also certified in conflict mediation.

She suggests approaching difficult dinner–and work–conversations with a genuine curiosity to hear where the other person is coming from. Ripley explains that you need to remind yourself that society is not normal right now, so you can’t just lean on past conflict resolution strategies. For instance, she notes that pulling out statistics amid a family feud over vaccines, isn’t going to help you out that much. The same logic applies when handling a stubborn or irate customer on the job. 

“The paradox of persuasion is that if you go into an encounter trying to persuade someone else, you will fail,” Ripley said. “You’ll probably make the other person more convinced than ever that they’re right.”

While the operative word these days is patience, the tools you’ll need to overcome difficult times are just as important. Those include genuine listening skills and preparation. Preparing for difficult conversations may help you better navigate tension points that arise around the dinner table or when handling a customer complaint, adds Ripley. 

Practice this form of listening in a low stakes environment before busting it out. That could be with a child, a significant other, or a close friend. Active listening tends to work in diffusing tense situations since it boils down to a person feeling like they’re being heard. 

That’s not to say that everyone will have success when they try to hear someone out and that courtesy isn’t reciprocated. Usually that’s to be expected. But as Ripley sees it, if your priority is to learn more about the other person’s perspective and preserve your relationship with them, then you don’t actually need them to reciprocate that curiosity. 

“We are living in a world that is designed to create high conflict,” she says, “but [the person] is noticing what you’re doing, and if you have a relationship with them then you have influence over them.”

If you don’t have as deep of a relationship with a person, then it’s a totally different scenario. In that case, you have to build a repertoire before you can take diffuse conflict, Ripley explains. Again, that’s done through listening, being curious and asking genuine questions.

Those acting as a mediator trying to diffuse a tense moment between others also face a unique situation. To prevent an outright meltdown, try to be on the lookout for warning signs in a conversation that’s headed for a downward spiral. Physical signs of agitation can signal a brewing feud. Don’t corner the person, lecture them or shut them down. Instead, try to learn more about where their head is in an environment that’s away from an audience. 

At the end of the day, you want to use intentional language that is personal so you can connect with others on a deeper level. The last thing you want to do is stifle anyone or try to stuff your perspective down their throat. The only things that should be stuffed on Thanksgiving day are the turkey and those around the dinner table by the time the meal is over.

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