Dread Family Gatherings?

Have you ever found yourself stuck in conversation hell at a family gathering?

Maybe you have a nosy aunt who loves asking you super personal questions you don’t want to answer. Or a cousin who manages to dump all their problems on you at every party.

Enough! Let’s get you some strategies and scripts to create better conversational boundaries! You can keep these in your back pocket for if and when these awkward situations arise, so you can enjoy your family gatherings and avoid conversation hell!

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

Feeling like you’re stuck in a conversation you can’t seem to get out of is the worst! 

If this is an experience you have often with close family it can speak to a deeper boundary dysfunction. Setting boundaries with our family of origin can be especially difficult. 

So many of us learned disordered boundaries growing up, and there are different ways this can present in our adult lives. Even when you get really good at setting boundaries in other areas of your life, when it comes to family, you might still struggle. 

Have you ever gone home for the holidays and before you know it you start feeling like your 12-year-old self again? Maybe you’re extra defensive or angry because your parental impactors are treating you like a child. If you can relate, you’re not alone. 

You can think of relationship dynamics like a dance – and we’ve been dancing with the people we grew up with for a long time. Family holidays and gatherings can feel like the original dance troop getting back together- and not always in a good way. So when we try a new dance step, like setting a new boundary, there’s usually pushback. 

Be rest assured there is always a way you can express a boundary request respectfully and politely. You can be firm and kind, without being aggressive. 

So what can you do to set better conversational boundaries?

Opt-out. Many of us might not even think it’s an option, but you don’t have to have a conversation with anyone you don’t want to! You can say something like, “Oh, will you excuse me, I need to use the restroom…” or “I want to refresh my drink…” or “I just saw my mom I want to talk with her…” 

We can often worry about what others will think of us, but more often than not, if this is a person who is notoriously nosy or always dumping their problems on others, they will move right on to the next person to get their fix so to speak. There is no reason for you to silently suffer. Creating healthy conversational boundaries with others doesn’t have to be confrontational or rude. It is perfectly acceptable to opt-out.

Redirect the conversation. If someone asks you a question you don’t want to answer, you can straight up ignore it and change the subject with a redirect. The truth is, most people want to talk about themselves. 

Let’s say Uncle Bob comes at you with, “So why did you get divorced?” You can respond with something like, “Oh, you know what, let’s put a hold on that because I heard you got a new job and I want to hear all about it!” 

If you want to stay in conversation with them but you don’t want to reveal too much about yourself, a simple redirect making it about them can solve your problem in the moment! 

Flip the script. What do you do if someone persists in being intrusive even after you redirect them? Question the questioner. This is one of my favorite conversational boundary strategies from power dynamic expert, Kasia Urbaniak, and I am telling you, it works almost every single time. 

If anyone keeps pressing you for information you do not want to share (“I really want to know, why did you and what’s his face split up?”), you can flip it back on them and say, “Why would you ask me that?” or “Why would you want to know that?”

I have found this strategy most successful when the delivery is without heat behind it, so try to question them in a neutral tone. This simple shift changes the power dynamic and puts the onus on the other person to have to explain themselves! It is your decision about who you share the intimate details of your life with. 

Use your body language. Your body can be your ally when it comes to communicating your boundaries, so practice being aware and in control of it! If I am at a gathering talking to someone I don’t plan on spending much time with, I am not displaying open body language. I might lean back, cross my arms, or be looking around the room periodically. Not in a rude way of course, but I want my body language to be aligned with what my goal is, which is to keep it brief and move on. 

What if someone is trying to get your attention and you definitely don’t want to talk to them at all? Nothing says I’m not stopping to chat like actually…NOT stopping to chat! You can smile at them and even say, “Hey! Happy Holidays!” and keep on walking. There is power in having your body language aligned with your intention, so use it! 

Stop inappropriate comments in their tracks. How do we deal with people who say inappropriate things out loud? Maybe it’s racist, misogynistic, or a sexual “joke”, right? 

Use your body language and your words by putting your hand up in a stop position and saying, “That does not work for me.” If they don’t stop or try to blame you for being too sensitive, walk away. 

Nip interrupters in the bud. If there is someone in your life who interrupts you often, you can set your boundary by saying something like, “I’d appreciate it if you could let me finish my story and then I’m all ears for yours!” or, “Do me a favor and let me finish because if I don’t I might forget what I was going to say.” I like pairing my body language with these scripts too to make it even more effective- I’ll put one finger up to indicate wait a minute, please.

The holidays are upon us so I created a conversational boundaries cheat sheet for you with even more ideas and scripts! You can download it right here.

I would love to hear what your experience is so drop me a comment or connect with me on Instagram @terricole

Have an amazing week and as always, take care of you.

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    1. Hi Mary – I am witnessing your struggle with so much compassion. I think you have to decide if going there is in your highest good if you feel rejected while you are there. Could you stay home and volunteer or spend time with friends? Have you talked to your step daughter about whether it is convenient for you to spend the holidays with them as you sense that perhaps you are being tolerated rather than welcomed?

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