Say this, not that: Your holiday conversation toolkit

Published November 29, 2019


A family talking over a holiday dinner.

Most of us look forward to the holidays – a time to mingle and reconnect with friends and family. One of the keys to a successful party is great conversations that avoid polarizing topics or hot button issues.

Use this conversation starter toolkit to help you survive the holiday conversation gauntlet with positive and memorable discussions.

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“One of the most important things you can do is come prepared,” says Brian Shaw, a behavioral health specialist and psychiatric social worker at the Nebraska Medicine Psychiatry clinic.

That might mean actually writing down questions you can use as conversation starters, brushing up on details about friends and relatives whom you haven’t seen for a while, and even practicing how you are going to change the subject when a topic goes sour. 

If you are the hostess, you can also help promote positive conversations at the dinner table by laying down some ground rules like putting away cell phones and avoiding politics, says Shaw. You can even have guests put open ended questions in a bowl and then pass the bowl around the table. Of course, you will want to monitor the questions and lay some ground rules on these as well.

Try these 15 tried and true conversation starters to break the ice: 

  1. What is your favorite holiday dish?
  2. What are your new year’s resolutions? 
  3. What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
  4. What accomplishments are you most proud of this past year?
  5. What do you like to do for fun? 
  6. What is the most embarrassing thing that happened to you in childhood?
  7. What did you want to be when you grew up and how has that changed? 
  8. What new skills or hobbies would you like to learn or delve into in the new year?
  9. What is your favorite hobby and were you able to devote much time to it this year?  
  10. What kind of impactful learning experiences did you have this year?
  11. What are your vacation plans this year?
  12. What was the best vacation you’ve ever had?
  13. What was your favorite movie or book this year?
  14. What is your favorite restaurant?
  15. What are you most thankful for?

The types of questions you ask, how you ask them, and your body language can all play a role in the ability to have engaging conversations, says Shaw.

Use these 9 “rules of engagement” to help start a conversation on the right note and keep it going:

1. Ask people questions about themselves.

You can never go wrong asking people about themselves. Ask open ended questions (How are your kids? How’s your job going? Did you go anywhere fun this year?) and be ready with follow up questions. Most people love to talk about themselves and it shows you’re interested in them. 

2. Offer compliments.

It may be about a positive quality you admire, what they’re wearing or something they have accomplished recently. This will immediately make the other person feel good and gets the conversation off on a positive note.

3. Ask advice.

Depending on the person, this can take many different angles from asking their professional advice on a subject, how to do a do-it-yourself home project to their suggestions on a good book to read. This will make them feel important and valued.

4. Practice active listening.

Listen closely to what the person is saying and follow up by paraphrasing what he or she has said to show you are really listening. Be prepared to ask follow up questions to keep the conversation moving forward. 

5. Avoid dominating the conversation.

Allow others to talk and turn the conversation back to them if you feel like you are doing most of the talking. Let people finish their thoughts before you chime in.

6. Steer away from awkward questions or topics.

If an awkward question or topic should arise, take a deep breath and don’t say anything. Think carefully about your answer and how it will impact this person and those around you. The best advice may be to simply change the conversation. 

7. Use open body language.

Avoid crossing your arms and pivot your body toward the person. Make eye contact. Occasionally indicate you are listening with a nod or words of confirmation like oh really, wow, that’s great, very interesting, etc. 

8. Avoid getting personal.

Questions that start with, “How do you feel about…” may trigger negative or awkward answers. 

9. Find something in common.

If you have something in common, focus on this source of commonality in your conversation.

“Sometimes the holidays can be a time of stress and anxiety,” says Shaw. “You can help relieve some of that anxiety with a little bit of mental preparation and keeping these conversation starters in your back pocket. If you are proactive and intentional in your conversations, you may be surprised at how much more enjoyable and stress free these social gatherings can be.”