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featured insight

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Five Tools to Help You Talk Turkey with the Family

Kayla Dunlap

Get a few tips from our trained focus group moderators on navigating holiday get-togethers.

The holiday season is officially upon us and, for many of us, that means spending quality time with the family. If you’re one of the fortunate few, your relatives and you share “relatively” the same viewpoints on some of life’s more charged topics, like politics, the economy, your dating life, worthwhile career choices, and what qualifies as tasteful household decór. 

If you’re like most of us, however, even the most innocent conversation can quickly turn into a heated debate or a deep and uninvited analysis of your current life situation. One second you’re having a pleasant chit-chat about your niece’s favorite teacher and the next you’re watching in mute horror as your Uncle Dan launches into a blistering tirade about the systematic dissolution of our nation’s educational system. 

So, how can you help keep the family banter friendly and light? And, when a conversation starts to take a negative turn, what can you do to steer it in a positive direction? Those are great questions to ask and, fortunately, we here at Meeting Street Insights have some answers to share—all based on insights we’ve gained over decades of successfully moderating focus groups.

Discover the tools of moderation

Focus groups, by design, bring together people with diverging, and often opposing, points of view. So we prepare ourselves ahead of time to keep the dialogue respectful, considerate, and non-combative. And, when someone does start to “raise the temperature” of the conversation, we have a proven set of tools that can help neutralize the energy and get everyone back on track.

1.  Establish some ground rules

When we invite people to participate in a focus group, we’re essentially putting together a guest list. We know who will be in the room, and we expect that some people may have more “agreeable” personalities than others. Sound familiar? So, to help keep things friendly, we set some ground rules ahead of time. We make sure that everyone who’s attending understands that we expect them to treat one another with respect. That doesn’t mean we expect everyone to agree. In fact, that would make for a rather boring discussion. However, the etiquette with which we disagree can make or break the group’s productivity. To this end, we emphasize that everyone’s point of view is equally valuable regardless of what our opinion may be. 

If you’re hosting, you can borrow a few tricks from this strategy. For example, you could ask everyone to bring a show-and-tell item that has sentimental value or an interesting or fun backstory. You can also ask each guest to come up with a question to ask the group. It is also helpful, especially if your family is particularly divisive, to establish boundaries for conversations beforehand (aka no politics until dessert). After all, we can each think as differently as we want so long as we collectively share the same philosophy when it comes to being considerate of one another.

2. Brainstorm topics ahead of time

The most important work of a successful focus group is completed well before the meeting starts, during the hours spent preparing. First, we develop a list of questions that will generate the best insights on the topic. There are usually dozens of questions that could jump start conversations and lead to interesting discussions; so, next, we narrow them down to a small selection that invites the most opinions and allows us to maximize our learning in the limited time we have. 

For your family gathering, a little preparation can go a long way. Put together a list of topics that you know will inspire fun and interesting conversations, like favorite movies, books, or holiday traditions. You can also come up with questions you’d like to ask your family or your guests or a required question to answer before partaking in the Thanksgiving feast like “What are you most thankful for this year?” (Cliche I know!)  Also, if you know there’s a unifying point of passion for everyone attending—e.g., you’re all hooked on the same TV show or are excited about a family member’s latest achievement—add that to the list. Conversely, avoid any topics that may cause friction like the winner of the annual backyard Turkey Bowl. Or, if you know your Aunt Eleanor always gets riled up about canned cranberry sauce, take it off the table.

3. Get everyone involved

In a focus group, there’s always one person who speaks the loudest or the most often. If that individual is given too much space, they will take over the room. When we moderate focus groups, we try to find gentle ways to get certain people to stop talking, and encourage those who are being quiet to speak up. 

In your family gathering, if you notice that one person is dominating the conversation, politely steer it away from them. This is admittedly a bit easier to do when conducting a focus group. For example, you probably can’t get away with our favorite transition, “We have a lot to cover, so we’re going to move on to the next question.” However, it is usually possible to find other people who have not yet had a chance to join the conversation and engage them. Invite them to share their thoughts on the subject, or ask them a question about a completely different topic. We’ve found the phrase, “Oh, that reminds me of . . .” to be particularly helpful when trying to change the topic quickly. You can even pivot to something that was said earlier in the evening to re-engage with someone and let them know their input is valued.

4. Step in if you need to

Even though focus groups purposefully bring together people with opposing viewpoints, conversations don’t typically become overly heated. Participants understand the purpose is to get a wide variety of viewpoints, so they expect disagreement. This tends to mitigate some of the hard feelings that might otherwise surface. However, when conversations do become heated, it’s our job as focus group moderators to step in and diffuse the situation. We do this by listening carefully, repeating their answers back, and then moving on.

If someone starts to get worked up during a discussion, step into the conversation and thoughtfully redirect it. For example, say someone is sharing their anger about a topic that, by nature, is divisive (e.g., people’s choices regarding wearing masks or getting vaccinated during the pandemic). First, make sure they feel heard. Be sympathetic to them; tell them you understand how frustrating the situation is. Then change the subject. You can choose one of the topics off the list you prepared or even ask them—or someone else at your gathering—a question about themselves unrelated to the previous subject.

5. When in doubt, focus on gratitude

Family gatherings are a great time to find common ground. Encourage your guests to focus on what you appreciate about the day, your lives, and one another. And throughout your get-together, remember that Thanksgiving is the perfect time to celebrate what you’re thankful for, even if it’s just the opportunity to happily wave goodbye as your guests depart.

Happy Thanksgiving from Meeting Street Insights to all our clients, family, and friends. We’re grateful for each and every one of you!

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