Thanksgiving can be a welcome pause to reflect on gratitude and enjoy some family time. However, being in close quarters with family members we haven’t seen in a while — and the resulting contentious conversations — can also make holiday gatherings a source of stress. One way to minimize awkward interactions is by planning ahead, and preparing out-of-the-box questions and exercises to spark conversations that are both meaningful and fun. 

We asked our Thrive community for their unexpected, creative ways to break the ice around the table this year. Which of these de-stressors will you try in your home?

Ask everyone to share a 2019 accomplishment

“Last year, I created a placemat for each person at our table with the words, ‘What are you proudest of from 2018?’ Before we ate, I asked everyone to identify four or five things to share out loud. Hearing everyone’s accomplishments was more touching than I could have imagined, and one friend still keeps her placemat on her fridge today.”

—Luisa Molano, transformation and leadership coach, Denver, CO

Contribute your “yays” and “yikes” from the year

“Earlier this year, my nine-year-old daughter started asking for ‘Yays and Yikes’ during our weekday family dinners. I’m still not sure how she came up with the idea, but all three of my kids instantly understood what it meant to share their ups and downs from the day. Now, when we have the extended family and grandparents over for the holidays, we go around and share our ‘yays and yikes’ from the past year.”

—Racheal Cook, business consultant, Richmond, VA

Use toys to bring up nostalgic stories

“Before Thanksgiving, I go to a local toy store, and stock up on various boxes of legos, crayons, coloring books, and toy cars. I randomly place the different items on my guests’ place settings, and when they sit down, I tell each one that the item was chosen just for them, and that it represents a significant memory together. You’ll find that everyone will have their own way to share something relating to the object. People are astonished and often ask, ‘How did you know?!’  The truth is, I have no idea. It’s amazing what comes out!”

—Eileen McDargh, CEO, Dana Point, CA

Play a round robin gratitude game

“In our home, we play a ‘round robin’ Thankful Thursday game — where we go around the table, and share what we are thankful for until we can’t go anymore. This year, I plan to share a very specific value that I appreciate in each of my kids, my gratitude over the orchids re-blooming, and my happiness about the simple adventures we have had during this year.  As a mom, it is always interesting to know what my kids are thankful for, and I’m always surprised how one moment can spark several collective memories.”

—Renee Tarantowski, writer, Mundelein, IL

Ask for your guests’ recent “aha” moments

“I always feel that a meaningful Thanksgiving conversation starts with asking everyone at the table what their recent ‘aha’ moment was — an experience that felt eye-opening, and beneficial. It makes the table a judgment-free zone, as we all go around and share our moments, and why we’re grateful for them.”

—Donna Kirven, work and life counselor, Pittsburg, CA

Prompt each person to fill in the blank

“I ask my family to complete the following statement: ‘I like myself when…’ Many of us get caught up in a cycle of stress and activity, and we can forget who we are — and whether we even like our lives. Answering this question can allow us to identify when we feel our happiest and most confident.” 

—Darren Horne, leadership consultant, Cumbria, UK

Share a current obsession

“My favorite ice-breaker question is asking family members what they’re obsessed with these days. I love it because everyone has something that is capturing their attention, but most of the time, no one asks them about it. It’s fun to see people light up about something they are passionate about, and it usually deepens the relationship and opens the door for further conversation.”

—Louisa Liska, arts manager, San Francisco, CA  

Invite guests to share their favorite traditions

“At our table, we take a page from the Thanksgiving episode of the show This Is Us, where guests go around the table and share one favorite Thanksgiving tradition. For example, I like to share that my daughters and I create a recipe spreadsheet, and share it on Google Docs prior to the holiday. It’s a great ritual that allows us to prepare for the holidays together, even though we live in different states.”

—Nancy A. Shenker, marketing consultant, Scottsdale AZ

Do you have a unique question or exercise that adds meaning and joy to your holiday table? Share with us in the comments! 

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  • Marina Khidekel

    Chief Content Officer at Thrive

    Marina leads strategy, ideation and execution of Thrive's content company-wide, including cross-platform brand partnership and content marketing campaigns, curricula, and the voice of the Thrive platform. She's the author of Thrive's first book, Your Time to Thrive. In her role, Marina brings Thrive's audience actionable, science-backed tips for reducing stress and improving their physical and mental well-being, and shares those insights on panels and in national outlets like NBC's TODAY. Previously, Marina held senior editorial roles at Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour, where she edited award-winning health and mental health features and spearheaded the campaigns and partnerships around them.