Six moves that create more harmony over the holidays

Holidays have a way of heightening emotion, regardless of what’s going on outside the walls of your kitchen. This holiday season, many of us are wondering: How will I stay at the dinner table if tension takes over and/or someone says something that offends me?

I think it’s safe to say we’re all bracing ourselves and hoping that 2018 ends with minimal conflict on an already overloaded society. I’ve been doing racial equity work for years, and I’ve seen a notable shift in the discourse around these sociopolitical times. More people are reading about White Fragility, having conversations about racetalking about painful realities, hosting discussions about “thankstaking,” and exploring why/how we must be conscious of what we’re celebrating and why (to name a few), which is  important. AND, given that many folks may be gathering and sparking new conversations, I wanted to take a moment to offer some “food for thought” for you to consider before pulling up a chair at the table this season in case it’s helpful.

I’ll start by sharing a deep belief I hold: it is possible to show curiosity, rather than certainty, about different perspectives, while staying committed to respect and compassion. I believe that, when we love and truly want to understand someone, anything is possible.

To me, this week is all about gathering with gratitude—not pretending the roots of this holiday are painful—but facing those truths, while being an active force for love and justice. With gratitude, in community. And, while many folks have a “no politics at the table rule”, inevitably something comes up, so I believe it’s important that we’re prepared.

There’s no quick fix, and I’ll always be a work in progress, but these practices are always good reminders for me (and will increase our chances of staying at the table in service of the greater good)…

Six Moves For More Harmony At The Table:

1.     Be ready to recalibrate.

Consider the state of everyone’s health (both mental and physical) and well-being (financial and spiritual)—yours and your community’s. If you know that folks are under a great deal of stress, they will likely not be thinking or behaving their very best. In fact, they may be doing the best they can with where they are, even when that isn’t how you would like them to be. If you have family or friends in this state, anticipate some discomfort so you won’t be caught off guard.

Understand that different emotions may (and likely will) come up, so recalibrating our expectations helps. In fact, you might even welcome tension as a teacher for what is alive and present in you rather than pretending it’s not there. When approached with curiosity, compassion and love, we can explore and grow during tense and uncomfortable moments. That’s what I’m trying this year.

In fact, inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s “letter to fear,” in her book, Big Magic, I wrote a letter to tension a few years ago, and I reread it every holiday. I invite you to consider what yours might look like.


2.     Check-in with mindful moments

Self-awareness truly is the key for staying emotionally grounded. Think about a time when you’ve been frustrated with a family member: What triggered you the most about the encounter? Did they interrupt, yell, raise their voice, or stand too close? Maybe it was something else, but if you can remember the thing that bothered you most, then you can prepare yourself (and therefore be less shocked if/when it happens this season).

You might reflect on your go-to moves when conversations make a sudden turn down discomfort lane. Do you tend to shut down, get defensive, walk away, raise your voice, or distract yourself when you’re triggered? Perhaps you have another reaction. Regardless, when we’re with people we love during tense times, it’s important to take a mindful-moment before reacting. When we feel emotions escalating, it’s always helpful to breathe. Truly. The power of one deep inhale/exhale can is real—it can calm the nerves and relax our heart, helping us think more clearly and be more present. Then, you might consider the connections between the thoughts/emotions you’re having with the physical sensations you’re feeling. Taking a mindful-moment allows us to pause and check in with our body and mind before reacting.

3.     Set an intention for yourself.   

I didn’t use to understand the power of setting intentions, but now, doing the work that I do, I experience the power of showing up with a purpose daily. Our intention may be specific or general. Depending on your reflections to #1 and #2, you may say, “I intend to ___” (e.g. “show up with loving forgiveness, be truthful, end conversations peacefully, agree to disagree with respect, be constructive not destructive, show integrity, listen fully, etc.). Do whatever feels right to you, but set one that you will remember. Also, remember the purpose of the holiday. Maybe we could all benefit from asking ourselves why we’re showing up.

For myself, I often set an intention to show up with curiosity, openness, and authenticity, because those three things allow me to stay fully engaged with love. Then, I remember that the purpose of my time over the holidays is to gather together in community. It’s not about politics. It’s not about convincing someone to think differently. So for me, it’s helpful to align my intention with the purpose of my visit. Setting an intention, sharing it with my partner—and remembering to check in with each other throughout the gathering—has proven to be powerful.


4.     Really Listen.

“When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.” – Stephen Covey

We all know what it feels like when someone doesn’t listen to us. We’re practiced at noticing who’s paying attention to us—we learn this at a very young age. AND, yet somehow listening with empathy and curiosity is not always easy, especially when someone says something we don’t agree with on a fundamental level. The truth is, listening can get us through even the most difficult times. I see it as the #1 leadership strategy and the foundation for relational trust. Listening beyond the words and tuning-in to the body language allows us to sharpen our understanding of what’s really underneath the words and identify the best way to navigate a situation. We don’t always have to respond right away. In fact, these two power words—“say more”—open the door for expanding on what was shared, AND they give you time to process what you’re hearing before reacting. Especially if we notice heightened emotions.


5.     Choose your words wisely.

 We all know that some phrases show support and others are confrontational. We know what it feels like to be on the other side too. Some questions shut people down and others open up possibilities.

I mentioned earlier that I often set intentions a lot. I haven’t always done this, and I’ve noticed a huge impact as a result. Setting clear intentions allow me not to have to agree with all that’s said, while acknowledging the other person’s experience. I respect their truth as their truth. It’s important to remember that we can’t force anyone to listen or change their world-views. When I work on leaving my ego at the door and managing my own emotional triggers, then I can choose my words wisely, while staying tethered to my intention. Being authentic and speaking from the heart is key. *After #6 I offer some some phrases and questions that might be helpful to have in your back pocket*

6.     Create space for story sharing.

I’m not a huge fan of small talk. I’ve noticed that many of us get asked the same questions when we greet each other over the holidays. It’s like, without fail or even much thought, these questions bubble up…

  • How’s work?
  • How are you?
  • How are things going?

There’s nothing wrong with them, and honestly, I catch myself asking them every once in a while—it’s as if an unconscious force takes over! My main issue and experience is that those questions don’t always provide as much direction or depth. Especially with multiracial, multigenerational, multicultural families, there are layers to what each of those questions may mean for each of us.

So, I have an idea: what if we mixed it up and were more intentional in our conversation-sparkers? What if we played a game or had a jar full of random questions/prompts to encourage more meaningful engagement? How might the dynamic shift if so? Even if you’re not the host of the gathering, I’ve found that a lot of hosts are open to fun ideas (and help!)—especially if you check-in beforehand. (ie. “given all that’s going on in the world, I wonder if we might be able to all share something different around the holiday season this year”…OR “I heard about ___(game/activity) that sparks fun and interesting conversations—would you be open to inviting folks to try it out after dinner?”)

Our card game, S.P.A.R.K., holds space for meaningful story-sharing, and a lot of other games do too. We’d love to hear your favorite AND how you plan on sparking meaningful conversations this holiday season. Comment below and let us know how you plan to incorporate more story-sharing experiences.

*As promised, here are some phrases and questions that might be helpful to have in your back pocket*

When you don’t agree:

  • When you said____ it really impacted me.
  • Hmm, that’s interesting. My experiences have led me to believe____
  • Are you open to hearing another perspective?

When you’re curious and genuinely open to hearing a different perspective:

  • Can you share more about why this is ___ for you?
  • Tell me how you understand things…
  • I hear your concern about____.
  • What I heard you say was____. Did I get that right?

When the tension is taking over (and you are triggered):

Pause and breathe first. Always.

  • I care about you and our relationship, and I think it’d be best if we take a pause and continue talking about this another time.
  • I value ____ about our relationship, and believe it’s possible to respect our differences.
  • I need to think about that more. Let’s come back to this another time.

PHRASES & BEHAVIORS TO AVOID (that almost always lead to accusations/blame/judgment):

  • Yes, but… (always go with “yes, AND”)
  • You’re wrong / I don’t believe you / You will never understand.
  • You’re not listening.
  • Exaggerated movements (hands in the air, overly vocal sighs, slamming doors, eye rolls, throwing anything, pounding table) or interrupting

It need be noted that I’m not a therapist or a counselor. When things escalate quickly sometimes it’s better to pause and not engage at all. I trust you’ll use your critical judgment and always put safety first. Your best network is your support system; so lean on the people who love and know you best. And again, this is just food for thought and my tried-and-true strategies for keeping harmony going strong during the holidays. If you’re committed to staying at the table and better understanding the people you love, I’m confident you’ll be able to get through this holiday season with love.

I hope this sparks something positive for you.

In community,


Rachel Rosen is the Founder/CEO of S.P.A.R.K, the game where everyone’s story mattersbecause she sees a need for it. S.P.A.R.K. serves to facilitate three things that Rachel cares deeply about: building empathy with others, raising-awareness of how one’s’ identity impacts their experience in the world, and slowing down to connect in meaningful ways. To learn more, check out

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