Skip to main content

How to navigate awkward family holiday gatherings

As the holidays bring families together to celebrate, some overbearing family members can make it tough to enjoy the festivities. One emotional intelligence expert tells how to deal with awkward tension over the holidays. As the holidays bring families together to celebrate, some overbearing family members can make it tough to enjoy the festivities. One emotional intelligence expert tells how to deal with awkward tension over the holidays.

"Did you gain weight?" "Are you still single?" "You look tired." "When are you having kids?"

Overtly personal comments and questions by overbearing family members have unfortunately become a tradition in some households during holidays gatherings, often creating awkward, tense moments during what should be a joyous occasion.

However, there are ways to address negative comments from family members without bringing down the holiday spirit, according to emotional intelligence expert Carolyn Stern.

"Family is definitely going to have a tendency to comment on your appearance, for instance, and while it may seem harmless and well-meaning, it can be really triggering and upsetting," Stern told in a phone interview on Thursday.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage one's own emotions and recognize them in others. Stern, author of The Emotionally Strong Leader: An Inside-Out Journey to Transformational Leadership, says emotional intelligence is key in helping navigate awkward or tense situations.

"All emotions provide us a gift if we pay attention to them, the problem is we haven't really had an emotional education," she said. 


Before heading out to that family party, Stern says it's important to mentally prepare yourself. While you may not have control of what people say, you can control how you react to them so as to not ruin the evening.

"Assume history is going to repeat itself, you know your family dynamics, so don't let that person trigger you because a lot of times what people say has more to do with them than it does to do with you," Stern said.

But if a family member does bring up a sensitive topic, it's important to register one's emotions first before responding to avoid any further conflict.

Emotions are neutral and temporary, Stern says, which is why it's important to recognize those strong emotions that are triggered by a certain topic. Understand that these emotions are valid but shouldn't be driven by someone else trying to get a reaction.

"Someone at the dinner table is going to say something that frustrates you, but if you don't know what frustration versus what anger is, you might show it as anger," Stern said. "It's important for us to know what we're feeling, what triggered that feeling, what it means and what is that feeling telling us about us, others or the situation?"


Before jumping to insult the person that might have brought up a sensitive topic, Stern says taking a moment to pause could help make a conscious decision that won't cause any bad blood.

"Be aware of your triggers, pause, and then make a conscious choice of how you're going to respond and think about the impact of your response before responding so that you know what will happen," Stern said.

Avoiding the question is okay since family members aren't entitled to know everything about you, Stern says, but it's also okay to set boundaries and make it clear you'd rather not talk about your personal life.

"If someone were to ask you, 'oh, I just heard you went through a breakup,' you could answer with 'yeah I did and it's really fresh so I prefer not to talk about it,'" Stern said.

By setting boundaries, family members will know what's appropriate for discussion and will hopefully avoid unsavoury conversations in the future. Asking questions can also help make for clearer communication and try to build an understanding with that family member that thinks certain topics should be widely discussed at larger parties.

"Emotional intelligence to me is about curiosity, not judgment. So if we can, when someone asks you an emotionally charged question, or maybe a controversial question, you can ask 'why [are] you asking that?'" she said.

Stern says you can also phrase the question with 'how come' instead of 'why' to make the individual more open to a conversation and less defensive. 

Flipping the question to make it about them can also help ease any tension to avoid tense conversations over dinner.

"You can turn it around and say, 'tell me a little bit about your love life,' make it more about them because people love to talk about themselves," Stern said.


Emotional intelligence can not only help us understand our own emotions but how we treat others as well, Stern says. It's essential to check in with how you may interact with others in social settings and see if you may be the overbearing family member or friend at the party without realizing it.

Stern says most people have a failed perception of themselves and are often oblivious to what they need to work on, such as communication, stress-management or tackling their own insecurities.

"Take yourself out of a situation and look from above. Sometimes that takes the emotional charge out of things," she said. "A good question you can ask yourself is 'how am I contributing to the situation? How am I helping or hurting?'"

Stern recommends asking close friends and checking in with yourself to help identify what areas of emotional intelligence need to be improved upon to have a better connection with others and yourself.

"Being emotionally strong for the holidays is key and it's about thinking smarter than your emotions, not letting a moment in time define you," she said. Top Stories

Stay Connected