Question: It’s almost Thanksgiving, and I’m dreading dinner at my parents’ house. We have deep political and religious differences, and somehow can’t seem to stay away from those topics when we’re all together. I want to be “salt and light” when I’m with them. How do I know when to speak up and when to keep the peace?
Answer: Have you noticed, when we go home for the holidays, how easy it is to slip back into old patterns of relating and behaving? I sometimes find myself sitting in the same chair at the dinner table that I sat in 40 years ago. You may find this difficult to believe but the problem you’re describing is so common, there’s a counseling technique designed to help you. We call it “taking the observer role.”
I once had a client who was so consumed with preventing hurt feelings and managing the conversation, his holidays were exhausting. He had become the self-appointed clown in the room. We call this a control distortion. He believed he had the power to control the conversation, that it was his job to save Christmas! I gently reminded him that Christmas was already saved.
When he took the observer role, he watched the family dynamic with some distance and learned to listen more and talk less. He learned to have more grace and less fear of losing control. He left the holiday table in peace, loving his family more. In his words, he stepped out of the center ring of the circus and enjoyed the show as a viewer, instead of a clown himself.
Here are a few guidelines: Be more light than salt. Grace is often more convicting than confrontation. Look for common ground; find things you agree on to discuss. There will be more common ground than you expect. Let the people you disagree with do the grandstanding.
In the end, our time together as family is precious. We are not guaranteed an infinite amount of time together in this world. Spend the time you have offering support and modeling Christ’s love to those you hold dear. Step out of the center ring.
Mark McCormick is director of clinic operations for Illinois Baptist Children’s Home and Family Services.