Jim Daly: The Thanksgiving table is special – 5 tips to kick start meaningful conversation when you gather

I love Thanksgiving and believe it ranks as one of the great American holidays - a time set aside to express our gratitude to God for this country and our many blessings.

Food may serve as the centerpiece of most gatherings this Thursday, but what are you going to talk about as you sit around the table?

Sadly, conversation is an art form some individuals and families have slowly lost over the years. Part of it has to do with fewer households eating together as a family due to busy schedules. Another reason is that so many of us are succumbing to the temptation to bring our smartphones and tablets to the table.

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Whatever the case may be, you’ll likely soon find yourself seated around the table with loved ones, perhaps including a few friends and maybe even some distant relatives you only see once or twice a year. Are you tired of the same small talk each year … the weather, football and aches and ailments?

And then, of course, there are those “taboo” topics that some may raise – specifically politics.

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How do you navigate the myriad of personalities and passions around the Thanksgiving table and yet still enjoy the time together?

Here are five tips to help kick start meaningful conversation:

1. Ask Questions

Conversation is like playing catch with a ball. It only works if the object is tossed back and forth. If you never throw, it’s not a catch. Nor is it a catch if you hold onto it after it’s been thrown to you.

As you think through what questions or topics to include in your list, consider your family’s personality. Goofy, lighthearted clans might enjoy silly “would you rather” type of questions sure to incite laughter. More serious families might appreciate recounting some of their more significant experiences that year.

No matter what the family’s temperament, the old Thanksgiving standby is always a good idea: What are you thankful for?

2. Ignore Your Phone

Gadgets can create an invisible barrier between us and others. Other times we use them as a “safety net” – bored? Check Facebook. Things get tense? Hide in your email. Is it absolutely necessary to post or tweet a picture of that plate of turkey and stuffing while you’re at the table?

Thanksgiving may not be the best time to discuss politics, but if someone launches into a stump speech for their favorite candidate, do your best to withhold a judgmental response, pro or con.

My suggestion is to take the temptation away. Perhaps you want to set a basket in the next room where guests can place their devices. Or maybe you want to make a game of it – first one to check their device has to help clean up or gets to pay for the next day’s stop at the coffee shop.

3. Wade Carefully into Controversy

Thanksgiving may not be the best time to discuss politics, but if someone launches into a stump speech for their favorite candidate, do your best to withhold a judgmental response, pro or con.

Instead, say something like, “I can see you care passionately about this” or “That’s very interesting” is a diplomatic but polite response. Just remember, you’re not going to save the world or likely change their mind by debunking or rebuking a personal opinion. Relax. Smile.

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4. Don’t Expect Perfection

It’s OK if your Thanksgiving meal isn’t reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.  Some years are just harder than others. Maybe it’s your first time around the table without a loved one who has passed away, or perhaps the family is reeling from the shock of bad news. Or maybe you have a rowdy toddler who screeches and hides cranberry sauce in the seat cushions.

Instead, focus on simply being together and giving each other grace.

If your family has lost someone, don’t avoid talking about them. Reminiscing can be therapeutic. If someone is going through a difficult personal situation, don’t be afraid to ask them what they need most.

5. Pray and Give Thanks!

Take a moment to pause and express appreciation to God for the people and good things in your life. Ask Him to comfort those in your circle who have hit a rough spot. Remember, it’s possible to be thankful despite disappointments and hardships.

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Remember that every good conversation starts with good listening. When all else fails, remember most people’s favorite topic is themselves. Show interest in others and they’ll likely show interest in you.

In the end, though, don’t stress over it. As the Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde once observed, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”

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