Refereeing the Dinner Table

Forrest Baum


It’s time for a family get-together, but, uh-oh: racist grandpa is at it again.

We may not all have a racist grandpa, but we could probably all use some help talking to our families. Family and productive communication don’t always go together, so we’ve asked some experts on how to avoid some common pitfalls.

When talking about spending time with their families, students in Brooke Zimmers’ communication class were visibly anxious just thinking about it.

The Challenge

Talking with family members can be hard. Parents may have goals that don’t line up with their children’s aspirations, and even close families can have widely varying beliefs.

Additionally, power and privilege dynamics can make dealing with family difficult, but it is possible to plan ahead so you can say what you need to say. Ideally, mutual love and respect helps, too.

“The holidays are emotionally charged with memories and expectations,” says Mimi Harvey, professor of communication studies. “And they’re also emotionally charged with the sort of images we have in the media.

“All the commercials show perfect families that are all beautiful and clean, the turkey doesn’t fall on the floor and Uncle George doesn’t make lewd remarks.”

Harvey has previously taught Conflict Management, and while she’s not a big fan of conflict, she has learned a lot about it.

“If you can avoid conflict in the first place, that, of course, is the best,” Harvey says, but she does recommend planning and choosing an appropriate time and place to have the conflict if necessary.

The Big Picture

So before you even start, let’s take a step back. Is the relationship with who you’re talking to important? The closer they are to you, the more thought and preparation you’ll want to put into this. The nature of your relationship and interaction will affect how you’ll proceed.

Are you talking one-on-one or as part of a large gathering? Who has the power? If you are talking to more than one person, are others in the group sympathetic to your feelings?

1. Set A Goal

What do you want to accomplish? Some people just want to get through dinner unscathed, whereas others want to stand up for values or issues that are important to them. It’s important to know where you stand.

Keep it realistic. It’s good to remember that we all have beliefs, and that we’ve come to them over time and aren’t likely to change on a whim. On the other hand, we also all have a story, and we can tell others how we feel in order to better understand each other.

2. Start Positively

Zimmers suggests trying a variation on the following: “I’m taking this class, I’m super excited about it and I’d like to share.” She also suggests people should be willing to be vulnerable. The more you can display what’s important to you, the more likely others will understand you.

Zimmers also says that “defensiveness is reciprocal,” so be careful when trying to get off on the right foot. When we start attacking, others will attack back. “We call it an escalatory spiral,” she says. “You have to be the bigger person to stop it.”

Many of these skills are about modeling proper conversational techniques, but it can be tricky when you don’t receive the same consideration back.

It’s also important to check to make sure you’re understanding each other. Communication Studies describes a three-step process to interact with others effectively: point out a response, ask if it means what you think it does and wait to find out.

Miscommunication can happen easily, so the perception check helps to ensure that what you think is being communicated to you actually matches what the other person says.

Communication 101 describes a “perception check,” to ensure clear communication in three steps:

  1. Describe a perceived response: “I saw you frown at that…”
  2. Question it: “Is that because you disagree, or because you’re uncomfortable?”
  3. Wait for feedback.

3. Listen

Kelly Cassady, who’s teaching Interpersonal Communication this quarter, thinks that people misunderstand key aspects of communication. “Everybody focuses on the speaking part of communication,” she said, “when listening is the skill you use way more often.”

It’s also easy to ask a question and let someone answer. “Everyone wants to share their opinion,” Zimmers says. Then you can craft a personal response.

Cassady points out that in many situations, people are told not to make “waves,” and that it’s very unlikely that others will change their minds.

Cassady also says that you don’t have to talk about something, just because there’s a lot going on in the world. Zimmers, however, is optimistic.“I’m hoping that some students are emboldened by their classes, and they do want to share what they’ve learned,” she says.

It may make sense to practice in a low-risk situation first. Talk to a friend (someone you don’t quite agree with) one-on-one, and try saying what you want to say.

So remember to breathe, listen and ask questions.

“It’s really important to stress that there’s no right way to communicate,” Zimmers says. So try different ways to communicate, and don’t sweat the details. Some methods just work for different people in different situations.

4. Lighten Up

Remember that it can be fun to argue a little.

College is one of the best times to learn and practice communication techniques. These skills can carry on into future job opportunities, where there are a number of conflicts and different types of people to interact with.

Would you like to learn more?

You can learn about communicating by taking one of these classes for winter quarter:

Introduction to Communication (CMST& 101) provides a wide approach to communication skills applicable all across society.

Interpersonal Communication (CMST& 210) classes give students the tools and skills to learn more about how to communicate well in a one-on-one basis.

Communication for Social Change (CMST 203) engages with power and privilege, and the ways that it interacts and intersects across lives and society.