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Expert Tips to Keep the Peace During Thanksgiving Dinner

Certainly, Thanksgiving should be a beautiful time for families to gather, show gratitude and eat a carefully-planned meal. Unfortunately, however, it sometimes turns into a civil war. As the nation contends with epic levels of political divisiveness and other hot-button topics, it’s not always easy to keep the peace, even at home.

Thankfully, Best of NJ was able to reach out to some family and communication experts, who offered us the following thoughtful advice about how to keep the peace during Thanksgiving. These are their best tips:

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Strategize Like Your Life Depends on It

“There is often someone in the extended family who gives you a stomachache just thinking about him or her,” says Fern Weis, parent-teen relationship coach at Your Family Matters, LLC in Wayne. “You, your partner, or your children may feel antsy around this person. A little preparation can go a long way.”

In fact, Weis suggests coming up with a signal for whenever you need rescuing and filling in allies ahead of time. But Marlene Caroselli, author of the Language of Leadership, takes it a step further. She suggests Thanksgiving hosts warn guests they will shout, “Kwanza” whenever arguments arise. Then, hosts should ask one person to say what he or she is grateful. Kwanza, by the way, is a holiday to honor African virtues, including unity, collective work and purpose.

Friends Saying Grace at Dinner Table

Get Your Brain Ready

No, you don’t have to study for a test. But you should mentally prepare guests for what lies ahead. Jennifer Theiss, Associate Professor of Communications at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, advises hosts to warn guests if someone with whom they have beef is going to attend. Being forthright helps people manage expectations and plan what to say and how to react.

Don’t Forget the Ambiance

The feel of a party can greatly contribute to the outcomes. Festive Thanksgiving decorations can serve as a lovely distraction, says Meiyoko Taylor, a best-selling author and personal development and emotional mastery coach in Cherry Hill. He also suggests hosts ask family members to bring their favorite dish, the one for which they are famous. After all, if people are in a happy mood and feeling valued, conversations are less likely to devolve into arguments.

Thanksgiving Table Setting

Discover Your Inner Martha Stewart

Aside from decorating, you should also use place cards to strategically seat your guests, says Beth Sonnenberg, licensed clinical social worker and relationship expert. Seat the conflict breeders next to you, adds Caroselli. Give them something to do, like getting the beans from the kitchen, if they try to start an argument. Then, put the people with the most tension between them as far apart from one another as possible, she says.

Decorations and place cards are not the only Stewart-esque projects you can take on. Planning entertainment is another way to guide the events of the day and distract people, says Sonnenberg. She suggests family trivia, charades and going around the table to share gratitude.

Steer the Conversation

Avoiding hot-button topics is often cited as the best advice this time of year. But you can also initiate better subjects to discuss. One that is popular with families is reminiscing about good times, says Laurie Endicott Thomas, who is based in Madison and the author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists. She suggests bringing out the old family photo albums, too. “Talk about what unites you, not about the things that divide you,” she adds.

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Punish Your Naughty Guests

You read that correctly. Some people can’t help themselves. They feel a need to push the buttons of others and bring up those unspoken no-nos, such as religion or politics. Theiss suggests threatening guests with “punishment” at the start of the gathering. “First person to mention, ‘Trump,’ has to help with the dishes,” is the example she provides.

Be a Responsible Bartender

Sarah Mandel, an individual and couples psychotherapist in Mountainside, warns that too much booze can lead to bad behavior. If the host is the drunk one, things can really get out of hand. So, watch your own alcohol intake and keep tabs on whom you are serving. Making sure there is plenty of food can help, too. Make wine that goes with the meal, and perhaps offer a signature cocktail as the only available alcohol (if your family expects it).

Family Arguing

Set the Thanksgiving Table and the Tone

Most experts agree, hosts are the ultimate deciders of the kind of holiday the family will experience. For starters, they should loosen up. “If the hosts are having fun, watching football, enjoying themselves and laughing, that will help guests follow their lead,” says Sonnenberg.

In other words, be part of the solution. “Don’t add to the ripple effect being felt around the country,” says Mandel. “Try keeping in mind that spreading goodwill should begin at home.”

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