How to practice management skills around the Thanksgiving table

Today, many of us have a prime opportunity to hone our management skills through conversations with friends and family around the Thanksgiving table.

Whether it’s parents, relatives, colleagues, friends, or some combination of all of the above, you’ll likely have a chance today to connect with people that you might not see all the time. This is a fantastic opportunity to practice two key skills: Active listening and tension diffusion skills.

When in a coaching conversation at work, you might ask a lot of questions to learn more about the individual problem or sticking point. At big family events, you might consider practicing your question-asking skills to learn more about your family members or friends. Another skill of active listening is reflecting back on the speaker and helping them to verbalize their thoughts out loud. This also has incredibly relatable real-world applications, particularly when understanding and empathizing with family members. And finally, if and when a touchy topic comes up, you can practice the art of acknowledging it directly while politely reverting course — another powerful skill in building executive presence.

So how can you use the holidays to tee up opportunities to practice these core communication skills?

Let’s start with a few sample conversations you might have around the Thanksgiving table:

Convo 1: The quick check-in

This is the most common conversation you’ll probably have this weekend — it’s what happens during that first 30-second encounter with a new person. Maybe something like this:

“Hey Aunt Judy! Good to see you? How are things?”

“Oh, it’s okay. You know, me and your uncle are trying to figure out when to wind things down and retire, so it’s been a tough couple of months. But we’re happy to see all of you, though of course cooking is just one more thing to do... Anyway, it seems like things with you and your sister have been great. Tell me about that new job!”

There’s a lot to unpack here. And your Aunt has given you a ton of opportunities in this conversation. While it may certainly be easiest to answer her question and talk about yourself and your new job, it might be interesting to practice rapt conversation and listening skills by picking apart her response a bit.

Here are some options about how you might respond:

Option A: Dig deeper into her own story.
“Thanks, Aunt Judy. Things are going well for me. But before we get into that, I’d love to hear more about you and Uncle Tom. What are some of the things on your mind with regard to your retirement?”

Depending on how well you know this person, you might consider diving right into the meat of the discussion and pick apart that piece about her worries with her imminent retirement. The only downside of this is the possibility of stressing her out more if she really doesn’t want to talk about it.

Option B: Take the bait and change the narrative to be about you.
“I’m so glad you asked! It’s been such a dream. I feel like I’m finally doing the work I want to be doing, and my colleagues have been so supportive. It really goes to show what a payoff it can be when you persevere in the job search.”

Well, she did ask…so it’s totally fine to jump in and respond. But if you do go this route, make sure you file away her earlier comment to come back to a conversation about Aunt Judy later on in the evening.

Option C: Reflect what you heard back on her and let her decide.
“Wow, that’s a lot of ground to cover! It sounds like you and Uncle Tom have been a little stressed, and today is a lot of work, but you’re excited to spend time with family and hear what everyone is up to. Would you like to share more about your retirement conversations or hear about my job first?”

I see a response like this as a prime opportunity to practice “mirroring” skills in conversation. Sometimes when people have a lot on their mind, they may not even notice that they are jumping so much from one topic to the next. While listening, take the time to mentally check off where the conversation travels and then reflect what you hear back on them. By ending with a question like this, you can let them decide how to steer the direction of the discussion.

Convo 2: The teensie bit of judgment

Whether it’s an opinion about your personal life or your professional life, many of us may experience a moment this weekend with just a whiff of judgment or passive-aggressive encouragement. Maybe something like:

“So, Anne…you and Mitchell have been together for two years now. And your brother and his wife are already expecting their second baby! Don’t you think it’s about time for you to settle down, too?”

Option A: Get defensive
“Hey, lay off it, Grandma. The world’s a lot different today than in the 1950s when you were married. Why don’t you go pester Kevin about the girlfriend he’s had for 7 years and will never propose to?”

Don’t feel bad — this is my most gut reaction preference to comments like this, too. Things like “Oh, you travel so much for work…” or “Wow, I’m surprised you don’t have a baby yet” can definitely set me off. But in all likelihood a response like this won’t be your best call.

Option B: Change the subject
“Ha, ha. I know, we’ve heard this before. But would you mind if we talk about something else? I’d rather not get into this right now.”

This polite but firm dismissal is a great tactic to practice both an acknowledgement and a deliberate action of intent to stay in control. This skill does come in handy in the context of a team meeting where you overhear somebody make a comment that’s off-putting, or even if you find that your team is getting too in the weeds on a project and you need to reset the room on the topic at hand.

Option C: Lean in (softly) to learn more about their reasoning
“That’s an interesting idea, Grandma. You’ve mentioned this before to me too. Would you mind sharing a bit more about why this is something you care about?”

This for sure takes the most poise and resolve to pull off. You can only ask this question if you are prepared to sit and listen to somebody’s answer. And the most important thing to remember — if you ask it, you can’t interrupt and explain why they are wrong. It’s now your cue to listen, ask thoughtful follow-up questions and get to know their point of view a bit better.

Convo 3: The group debate

Like the ‘teensie bit of judgment’ conversation, the group debate often starts with some triggering emotion for one or more people. It could be anything from politics to religion to a memory about a particularly hard family experience. When managed well, you can get through this discussion in a better place. When managed poorly, it can devolve into an evening of finger-pointing and dredged-up stories from the past.

Here’s an example:

“Well, you know what they say about your sister. Having that lesbian rabbi officiate her wedding was clearly just her way of shoving her liberal attitudes in the faces of many of her family members. Weddings are not the time for politics, is what I say, and it’s a good thing she isn’t here today, or I’d tell her that myself.”

Option A: Calibrate the room, then reflect on this out loud
“From seeing everyone else’s body language, it looks like everyone else here agrees with this sentiment. While I don’t personally feel this way, I appreciate you sharing this viewpoint, but since this makes me uncomfortable to discuss, maybe we can move on to another topic instead.”

Before responding to this question, you might consider looking around for real-time reactions and feedback from others around the table. If it seems like everybody is in agreement about this topic, whether or not you feel the same way, you might respond something like the comment above. If it’s clear there’s only one person with that opinion, call that out too. In either case, if it’s a topic that makes you uncomfortable, say so and move on.

Option B: Push lightly on the direct confrontation
“Hey. That’s not fair, nor is it polite to speak about my sister that way, particularly when she’s not here. If you have a problem with her wedding, you need to tell her that directly, rather than complain about it to all of us. If we can’t communicate openly as a family, then we shouldn’t be talking about these things at at all.”

A common management best practice when somebody overhears gossip about another employee is to ask that person to address the bad behavior directly with the offender. It does little good for an organization to breed gossip circles — and it’s not good for families either. While it’s certainly more difficult to manage in extended family relationships, depending on your relationship with this person, you might encourage a more direct conversation.

Option C: Reset expectations
“Hey — it’s Thanksgiving. I’m really enjoying the table conversation so far and I think it’s really nice to find commonalities among all of us here in the room. Let’s use this time together to enjoy our company, share some positive stories, and reflect on what we’re thankful for, rather than address someone not in the room.”

It’s probably pretty unlikely that your family has a set of core values pinned on the wall next to the stove (but if you do, please let me know). That said, it’s likely that there are some unstated inherent values of any holiday or group family gathering. By calling these out in front of the group (or even offering a few ideas back for everyone else to reflect on), you can force a quick reset on the conversation and remind people why they are here today. It might not change their mind, but it might adjust their tone and body language.

There’s been a lot of research this year about how to have cordial conversations with family members over the holiday season. The New York Times even built a mock, “Angry Uncle” chatbot that you can use to put your conversation skills to the test. A lot of these pieces are relating to the notion that political debates can rile up dinnertime chatter around the holidays.

But even if you don’t get into truly divisive territory over dinner, there are still plenty of opportunities to practice effective listening and other communication skills. Good luck today, and enjoy the turkey, everyone.

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