There's truly nothing like coming home for the holidays to gather around the table and listen to questions about your dating life or arguments from Uncle Fred about your incorrect political leanings.
Holidays can be stressful as it is, but add in some awkward dinner conversations and you've reached a whole new level. According to a survey commissioned by Ancestry.com, 49 percent of those polled said they had skipped a family gathering at least once because previous gatherings had been so divisive or uncomfortable.
Maria Shriver — journalist, author, nonprofit champion, and former First Lady of California — partnered with Ancestry to help us navigate these tough discussions while creating meaningful dialogue and still maintaining the cheerful holiday spirit we came home to enjoy in the first place.
Learn to Listen
According to Shriver, whose weekly digital newsletter The Sunday Paper is meant to inspire thought-provoking and meaningful conversation, listening is the first step to combating awkward family functions. "If people feel heard, it can lead to a productive conversation rather than an argument," she told POPSUGAR.
Take a minute to hear what the other person is saying, and be patient before speaking in order to listen for any additional information. Then, give them cues to let them know that you are attentively listening and interested in what they have to say. Approach the conversation as a way to learn more about where the person is coming from than starting a confrontation.
Bridge the Conversation
Sometimes, a particular topic — like politics or dating or something else entirely — needs to be off the table. Instead, direct the conversation to something that bridges everyone together, such as family history.
This can work even if you're visiting a friend or a significant other's family for the holiday, too. "Find a common ground, and discuss a topic that unites you all together," Shriver says.
Ancestry even created their own version of Table Topics that comes with its gift membership to give you and your family ideas.
Don't Be Afraid
"At my dinner table, anyone and everyone is welcome, regardless of political views or anything else," Shriver said. "I would say, don't be afraid to seat people next to one another that might have differing viewpoints. My mother used to have a rule that she'd always sit people next to someone they didn't know at the table. I love that."
Sitting next to someone and finding common ground may lead you to learn something different about someone you already knew or introduce you to a new person entirely. These conversations can help to create meaningful connections and strengthen a sense of belonging within your family or with someone you just met.
If you're hosting a holiday dinner or party this season, Shriver said, "make sure, as the host, that you mingle with guests and introduce them." As she noted, "that way strangers can begin to make connections with one another."