Tips for Turkey Day

November 26, 2008

When I was writing Worst Enemy, Best Teacherthose I interviewed often mentioned Thanksgiving dinner as a magnet for painful people.  I used the  “challenging sister-in-law, Suzie, who loves to fill your email inbox with ludicrous political propaganda,” as a typical holiday visitor, however, I was also gifted in my research with a number of others. There was the middle-aged sibling who still lives at home, the disapproving parent and the offensive alcoholic uncle. And the list continued with a variety of not-so-favorite characters with which to dine. 

Since Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful and not so desirable at times, I offer three tips for the day ahead:

1. Consider yourself a foreign exchange student — Become a stranger in a new land. Make it a game to figure out the gathered group’s customs and culture. When a meal is an anthropological study, we can look through different eyes. We instead focus on learning, instead of on judgement (or frustration!).  To win the game you must be able to create a list that answers:   

  • How does the group greet each other? 
  • How do they express affection? 
  • What are their prescribed rituals? 
  • How would I show respect? Show disapproval? 
  • How do they accept another into the group?

2. Next, remind yourself what is good or is working in this situation. Gratitude is a centering technique that forces us into our neocortex and away from reaction and constriction. Make a list of ten things you are truly thankful for. It might begin, “I’m breathing, I can walk, there are those awesome dinner rolls…”

3. And last, how might you bring fun to the situation? Play moves us into a good brain space. Artful use of play might include:

  • Teaching the kids how to play charades
  • Making everyone tell a joke before they get dessert 
  • Bringing hats that must be worn for a group picture, or 
  • Using one of the quick drawing exercises prescribed in Tim Brown’s Creativity and Play video 

 Whether or not painful relatives appear on our doorstep, these tips can help us to stay grounded and involved in the holiday. I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with good food, fun and new insight.  With gratitude 


   — Deidre

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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