Crisis Experts on Diffusing Conflicts at the Thanksgiving Dinner Table

Thanksgiving dinner with pumpkin pie

If thinking about Thanksgiving or the holiday season causes a tense pit in your stomach, you might not be alone. It’s not just the dissenting opinion over which grandmother makes the best pumpkin pie that causes a clash at the table. Politics, cultural changes, healthcare opinions and more may provoke testy conversations. With experience in crisis, PR professionals may have to utilize professional tactics when it comes to diffusing an all-out brawl at a family gathering. 

You may remember this "Saturday Night Live" sketch, from 2015, which shows the more things change...the more they stay the same. 

Regardless, we have a lot to be thankful for, and many consider themselves lucky to gather with families and friends. However, for some, with social situations providing an open audience, it may lead to them venting over the green bean casserole.

Some organizations are providing guidance for the public about navigating difficult conversations. The Surgeon General released a toolkit for discussions about health misinformation. In addition, USA Facts released data to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner conversations. Not everyone may agree with these tactics, but they ARE available. 

“If you need the government to tell you what to say and how to say it at Thanksgiving when you’re with your family, you’ve got bigger problems,” says Tim O’Brien of O’Brien PR. “I choose to talk about football or a stuffing recipe or how the kids are doing at school."

PRNEWS asked communication professionals about handling potential Thanksgiving-table disaster scenarios. So, if you find yourself in a pickle, put on your PR hat and consider these tactics to diffuse tense situations. Think of Thanksgiving as just another day at the office—reeling in a CEO interview that’s gone off the rails or calming the stormy seas of an escalating press conference. 

Set Ground Rules

Nicole Junas Ravlin, president and CEO of Junapr, says it’s best to get ahead of a situation.

“Setting some ground rules before guests arrive at dinner is one way to help steer the conversation from potentially hazardous topics, like politics or COVID. Should the conversation get tense during dinner, redirecting or deflecting to another topic can always help. You've seen political candidates do this when they answer a question on a topic they care about that was not even asked. Or, as my boyfriend Chris says, 'Agree to disagree. Pass the gravy.'"

An Understanding Approach

Another tactic is injecting empathy, says Liz Kaplow, founder and CEO of Kaplow Communications.

“When dealing with unexpected conversations or conflicts during a holiday gathering, taking an empathetic approach that ensures all guests feel comfortable is key. Two of our agency pillars are trust and respect–and those ideals can be applied when dealing with conflict and opposing views, both professionally and interpersonally.”

Practice Active Listening

Josh Wilson, publicist at Otter PR, says polite conversation cues can help you turkey trot around difficult dinner dialogues.  

“Listen. Sharing your opinion is easy. Listening to someone else's is a bit more challenging. Many arguments are simply a result of miscommunication. Actively listening with an open mind shows your loved ones you respect their positions. [And] ask questions. Showing that you are interested in learning more tends to lower tension and create a more peaceful dialogue.”

Prepare Topics 

Natalie Maguire, senior director of communications at GIPHY, knows how narrative around popular culture can spark a conversation. 

"Distract everyone with a hilarious GIF! Alternatively, if you expect that conversations could get heated, be prepared with topics you know are common ground for everyone. That could be as simple as a sports team you know everyone will get excited to talk about or a recent TV show or movie you all enjoyed." 

Accept Differences Ahead of Time

John Guilfoil, principal at John Guilfoil Public Relations LLC, advocates an apolitical holiday meal. 

"The best way to avoid an argument with family is not to have one in the first place," he says.

Attending a Thanksgiving dinner means "you have accepted that you may be with people who differ from you–perhaps greatly—on political and societal issues." Accept that "you are not going to magically convince people to get vaccinated or wear a mask over dry turkey and flaky layer biscuits. Facts be damned for one day—just eat. If you really wanted to make a point about Uncle Fred not getting vaccinated, you could always not show up.”

Follow the Youth

Dini von Mueffling, founder and CEO of Dini von Mueffling Communications, arms herself with topics that steer conversations away from confrontation.  

“I abide by the 'Is it kind? Is it true?' methodology. I focus on the youngest generations, who are always the wisest and most fun. In terms of topics, this year I know we'll be talking AI, since everyone's confused about it and its everywhere.”

Have a Safe Word

Similar to Guilfoil, veteran crisis pro Gene Grabowski, retired partner at kglobal, recommends banning talk of politics from the Thanksgiving table. Moreover, avoid talk of the pandemic, he suggests.  

“Given that the COVID pandemic deprived so many of us of a family Thanksgiving celebration the past several years, and that so many families had been arguing about politics, vaccines and masks, my professional counsel is to avoid falling into heated debate by declaring a politics- and pandemic-free zone during this year’s gathering."

He proposes using a 'safe' word.

"Maybe it’s reindeer, or snowball, or sunshine. That way, whenever the conversation starts drifting into conflict, anyone at the table can smile and say the safe word....then everyone can have a laugh and change the subject.”

​​Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal