Survival Kit for the Family Gathering: 7 Tools to Prepare a Healthy Emotional Feast


By: Poppy and Geoff Spencer, Certified Relational Experts, Speakers, and Authors

Many have already queued up their embittered discussion points for the family gatherings—or worse—even cancelled their visit to join the family, based on political differences.

While millions of people view the election results as a tragedy, we believe the real tragedy is making the conscious decision—yes, choosing—to allow politics to define you. Just as cancer survivors not only dealt with a scary disease, the cancer does not define them. We are an amazing treasure trove of ideas, beliefs, feelings and behaviors that make each of us unique.

This election really gave each of us an opportunity to pull up from our devices and probe the inner systems of our minds and hearts. It gave us the chance to communicate with ourselves and others, what we believe, what we think, and how we will act.

What a sad indictment on us that we allow political differences to not only define every aspect of ourselves, but choose to splinter our families and friendships.

The one sacred space ought to be the dining room table. Especially at the holidays.

This is one time where family serves as an anchor, where each member at the table rolls up their sleeves and asks: “What can I do to make things better?” Does my protesting or vilifying my father, help the world at large?

The first Thanksgiving after 9/11, two and half months after Geoff lost his brother in the second tower of the World Trade Center, he sat at a somber Thanksgiving table and heard Ton Brokaw refer to an empty chair at the table. Geoff has repeatedly said he has no regrets of the wonderful times he shared with his brother. He might have been bitter and broken and spewed contempt for many.

Yet he chose not to.

Instead he’s been on a mission for the past 15 years to honor his brother; to look for the silver linings; to acknowledge his gratitude each and every day.

Do you want the memory of the last conversation with your grandfather who stormed the beaches of Normandy, to include you telling him he doesn’t understand anything? Do you want to cultivate a family legacy of contempt? Alienate family and sever friendships?

Here are 7 tools to keep in your holiday survival kit:

  1. Prepare the emotional feast. Just as you prepare all day in the kitchen, sprinkle your prep time with conversations of what you already know to be your family member’s positions on everything from politics to texting at the table. “If Uncle Mike goes off on the election, let him have his say.” Perhaps before you sit down, you agree as a whole unit, that if you talk about politics, it will only be for x amount of time. Agree on ground rules for the multigenerational gathering. If a guest has a substance abuse issue, decide ahead of time your thoughts and behavior, and communicate to children, what they might expect.
  2.  Acknowledge and accept. If someone voted against your candidate, it does not mean that the person is completely defined by all of the political views. If you insert these words: “You’re right,” to the person who spouts what you believe is propaganda, it does NOT mean you agree. But is validates their first amendment. “You know, Aunt Sarah, we just had a discussion this morning while when we peeled potatoes. I explained to the kids, that what’s so great about our country, is that people are free to express their opinion. The kids are learning about our democratic process, our civil liberties, and how one view that’s different from another is still respected. And it does nothing to diminish the family love we share.”
  3. Find common ground. Even Trump and Clinton have shared positions on the wellbeing of America. They agree on protecting and securing the people of the United States. They each stated to vet those who enter the country from those with intent to do harm. They agree that the inner cities need help. They both want to create jobs and opportunities. We have shared values.​
  4. Teachable moments. When you are gathered, let each at the table share stories, including those who know a thing or two about civics. Discuss why we have different branches of government; why we have an electoral college. When family members hear from a grandfather or grandmother what life was like 70 years ago—the challenges and hardships they’d endured—they can learn how they dealt with and survived them. How empowering.
  5. Redirect with stories, humor, and a ladling of love. We choose our thoughts and behavior. Consider redirection, both intentional and not, and change the topic. If you see family members begin to squirm, it’s okay to shift. “Grandpa makes a good point, and he’s seen a lot of things happen over the course of his 86 years. Grandpa, can you tell us about the time when you were 11 and you and Aunt Lila drove the tractor into the side of the barn?” Deliberately shift.
  6. Resolutions: At each table setting, right next to the fork, have a pen and piece of paper that begins with: If I could make 3 changes in the world, they would be: 1______. 2_______ 3________. On a second piece of paper, have the words: “3 Things for which I am grateful: 1_____ 2_____ 3______. Each person at the table will read aloud and share their voice.
  7. Accountability: Go around the table and have each person declare what he or she will do in the next month to act on their written desired changes. Partner up to not only complete the action, but also to encourage family reparations, connection and bonding.

Choose to communicate by sharing stories of triumph over tragedy. And if you’ve said too many oohs and aahs over the delicious meal, there’s always football.

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Poppy and Geoff Spencer