Q: Our entire family is coming for Thanksgiving. We don't all know each other, and some divorced spouses will be there because of the children...
Q: Our entire family is coming for Thanksgiving. We don’t all know each other, and some divorced spouses will be there because of the children. I’m concerned about keeping conversation going. Ideas?
A: Just the fact that you’ve managed to bring together the entire family is cause for thanks-giving. It’s likely that the conversations will take care of themselves. Still, good hosts prepare for unforeseen events.
Thanksgiving, more than any other day, reminds us to take time for gratitude. Regardless of religious, political or philosophical differences inherent in a large group of people, everyone can find some reason to be thankful. Start the dinner conversation there.
Go around the table and ask each person to say one thing he or she is happy about this holiday.
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As host, it makes sense to say you are grateful that everybody was willing and able to celebrate together this year. Then you might add a personal comment to set the upbeat tone.
For example, “I’m really grateful that Joey finished his term paper in time so we don’t have to worry about it this weekend.” This lets everybody know you aren’t expecting them to come up with solutions to world poverty, hunger and peace.
When guests feel safe and comfortable, they often will surprise you with their observations. The whole family stands to know one another far better for your efforts.
When opening a line of conversation, stay away from the negative, and choose something that will bring forth comments and opinions and lead to other areas of conversation. (People almost always like to talk about movies, restaurants, sports, shopping, cars and new technology.)
Ever notice that people we consider the best conversationalists are, in fact, the best listeners? Take the time to pay attention to what people share, and ask open-ended questions that encourage conversation (as opposed to yes-or-no questions, which pretty much put you right back to Square One).
Should matters get dicey, be ready to change the subject. Asking for advice is a useful way to redirect a conversation: “I’ve been trying to make sense of my new iPod, but it keeps defeating me. Anybody know how to … ?”
It takes a certain amount of guts to break in and change a subject. Still, you have a responsibility to your guests to keep things light and positive.
A funny anecdote also might be helpful, so keep one or two in mind in case you need it.
A final thought: Seat former spouses on the same side of the table. That way, they won’t have to look at each other. Whenever possible, put a person in between them.
Mary Mitchell is a Seattle-based corporate trainer and author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette.” E-mail questions to Mary@themitchell.org. Sorry, no personal replies.