‘Tis the season for dinner parties – do you have good dinner party etiquette? 

How do you prep for a dinner party that may be emotionally charged? 

Do you know what to say to keep the conversation neutral, inclusive, and enjoyable for all?? 

After the year we’ve just had, bringing people together for said enjoyable conversation can be a tall order. Opinions are strong and stakes can be high. As therapists, we often hear that communication is the number one complaint so we want to give you insights leading up to your next holiday gathering so you can enjoy this holiday and the next. We know how important it is to plan well; we’re taking an essential tip from Larry David from his recent “Mini Bar” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm – he confronts the issue of seating arrangement strategy (Are you a good “Middler?”) and we’re adding our own ideas from planning and executing, including table talk to help you keep the conversation flowing. We’re here to help ensure your dinner party is a success. 

Prep: What To Think About Before The Party (beyond food and beverage!) 

Planning is just as important as the actual dinner gathering. Yes, we know that every year the holidays seem to come around faster and faster! However, before you slip into automatic get-it-done mode, slow down for just a moment, take a deep breath, sit down with your partner, and talk about how you want to feel during this year’s holiday season. Let your holiday season be guided by intention. As you begin planning your next event, sit down with your partner and talk through these three questions: 

  1. How did your family celebrate the holidays? (e.g., special entree, Turkey trot, football, church, lots of family, only friends, formal, casual)
  2. What is one thing you would like us to do this holiday to make it special?
  3. What is our end goal for this year’s holiday season? 

When you think about your end goal, how would you like to feel? For example, Adam shares that his job has been extra stressful with looming deadlines and a boss who has been extra demanding. His ideal holiday would be stress-free, restorative, and easy. One way he can bring his idea up to his partner is, “I have been feeling super stressed out and thinking about the upcoming holiday is making me feel nervous – my stomach gets knotted up thinking about even more demands and high expectations. Even though it has been tradition to cook our own meal from scratch, that takes a lot of planning, preparation, and time. I would love to feel rested and relaxed this holiday. What do you think about finding some kind of compromise? We can still enjoy some holiday traditions and figure out how to keep it easy and relaxing. What about delegating tasks? Either have family members bring a dish and we just focus on the turkey or reserve a fully cooked meal from a local restaurant or grocery store?” 

Now that you and your partner have discussed how you’d like to feel and you’ve set your intention, it’s dinner time! Whether it’s just you and your partner or an entire table filled with people, we’ve come up with questions that will make going from the main course to dessert a social event where everyone can contribute to the conversation.

Table Seating: Strategize the Flow of Conversation

If you want the conversation to go well and for your guests to stay engaged, a skilled “Middler” should be in attendance. There is strategy behind seating arrangement and depending on who sits where, it can either make or break the mealtime conversation. Thanks to Curb Your Enthusiasm, this “Middler” carries the conversation and is interesting–they are the “point guard” distributing the conversational ball. Carrying the conversation is not only about keeping things intriguing, but it also helps to be curious, listen for understanding, and be empathic so your guests feel comfortable sharing and engaging in the discussion. 

Regardless where you are seated, our therapists’ cliff notes on empathic listening will help you carry the conversation and connect in a meaningful way. 

  • When you are listening to your guest share their answer, be curious. Keep judgment at bay and communicate to the person sharing, “Tell me more.” 
  • Listen for understanding. This is a way to validate the other person’s point of view; it does not mean the other person’s point of view is right, therefore, yours or someone else’s is wrong. Validation is being able to say, “Ahh, the way you described [this, it] makes sense to me.” (Be specific, reflecting back what they just shared with you.) 
  • Last, use empathy; empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others – the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. An empathic response could be, “Of course, this year has been really challenging – you were in a really tough spot.” 

Party Time: 3 Conversation Starters for Your Holiday Dinner Table

It’s go time! Not sure what to say that will keep everyone engaged and interested? We have three starter questions that will generate discussion and have the potential to foster greater connection to one another. 

  1. What was this year’s greatest challenge? How did we weather it?
  2. What good fortune came from this year? How did we accept/embrace it?
  3. One thing I am grateful for in each of these categories is…
  • Work
  • Family
  • Relationship with partner
  • My own health
  • Friends

Before you blurt out these questions, however, take time to think about how you would answer them. We’ve found that the best way to engage your guests in table talk is in how you answer the questions yourself. When you share from your personal experience, incorporate a real emotion, be vulnerable, it captivates those who are listening and invites them to also share in a human and vulnerable way too. You create the tone for the table; vulnerability creates trust and communicates genuineness and invites others to join you. 

Don’t Plan A Holiday Party Without Some Help

If you find it difficult to listen to others who may have a different perspective than you, you’re not alone. Check out some of our past blog posts with pointers that can help:

We’re a group of therapists and we can help with communication and processing feelings you have when it comes to family dynamics. If you live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help you. Contact us to get started.