How to Manage Holiday Conversations Like a Boss

Best Practices from Business Can Help Navigate Making Plans With Family

Oct 29, 2020
Management and Organization

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  As we head into the holiday season, health officials are warning that family gatherings could fuel the pandemic. To be prudent, making – or breaking – plans with even close family and friends might require some difficult conversations. But with the right preparation and best practices borrowed from the management world, those conversations don’t have to be fraught with tension, says Maryland Smith’s Tricia Homer.

As the director of business communications for Smith’s master’s programs and a faculty lecturer, Homer teaches MBA students presentation skills and communication skills for managing clients and teams. She has also had some recent experience navigating COVID-19 conversations with family.

Homer is expecting her first baby in late November, due Thanksgiving, and the soon-to-be-grandparents are eager to meet the new addition.

“They all want to come,” Homer says. “It’s always a challenge for new parents to straddle the line of having family visit while nurturing a newborn, and now on top of that, we have to deal with the added pressure of the COVID environment.”

Homer has spent her pregnancy carefully quarantining – working remotely, getting groceries delivered, only having limited visitors outdoors, masked and socially distanced. As she prepares for her baby’s arrival, she has to make sure anyone who visits is doing the same. It has led to a few difficult conversations.

“I don’t want to quell their excitement, but we also have to figure out how to keep everyone safe,” she says.

Using the right frameworks – the same ones she teaches to MBA students to use as future managers – Homer says it’s possible to successfully navigate conversations with family without any hard feelings. Here’s how:

Know your audience. The good thing about having these conversations with family and close friends is you likely have good insight on how they react to certain things, says Homer. Think about their values, their disposition and how they may hear you. Homer knows her mother is emotional and her father-in-law is practical so she could use that information to help shape her conversations with them.

Choose your mode of delivery. Think about the best communication medium for the individual you need to speak with, based on their communication style. And don’t make it a text, says Homer. Same goes for messaging someone on Facebook or Instagram, where tone and important details are often left out.

“We obviously can’t have these conversations in person these days, and we all might be Zoomed out, but it’s often really important to be able to see someone and read their body language,” Homer says. There are times a phone call is also appropriate. For her mom, Homer knows a video call like Facetime is best, but for her father-in-law, a phone call works.

Determine your persuasive method. Homer teaches MBAs the modes of persuasion – emotion (pathos), logic (ethos) and credibility (ethos). She says they come in handy for tough conversations too: Are you going to appeal to their emotional side or their logical side, or is credibility important? A logical framework works best with Homer’s father-in-law, while her mother would more likely understand an emotional appeal.

Focus on the facts. You want to understand how the other person is behaving during COVID, but stay away from emotional or political triggers. Simplify your questions to get down to the facts: How often are you going out? How many people have you seen? When do you wear a mask?

Don’t make assumptions or accusations and don’t tell the other person what they need to do, says Homer – that’s a recipe for hurt feelings. Rather, use “I” statements: “I wear a mask wherever I go, I only hang out with people outside.” Inform people of your practices versus saying something like, “If you’re coming to see me, you need to wear your mask everywhere.”

Style matters. Practice. Run what you’re going to say by somebody else to get another perspective and have them help you think about contingencies, like what questions or response the other person might have.

Give up the need to be right. “As a boss, sometimes you have to give up the need to be right in a conversation,” she says. And you should never be defensive or offensive. “Don’t approach the conversation like it’s a war.”

For tough conversations with employees, managers need to be in listening mode, she says, and that applies here too. Find out where the other person is coming from. And don’t be defensive or quick to disagree.

Be prepared to buy time. If you are caught off guard with a conversation about an impending visit or invitation, it’s OK to stall, she says. “You want to make sure your communication is clear, and that it’s coached, meaning that you are sure you know your own perspective and the facts.”

Express gratitude and grace, she says, but bide your time if you’re not ready to answer. Say you need to check your calendar, consult with your spouse, or suggest scheduling a later time to have the conversation.

Focus on the solutions, not the problem. Offer solutions rather than harping on problems, says Homer. A good manager wouldn’t deal with an employee who doesn’t meet deadlines by berating him; she’d work with him to figure out a project plan and start using tools like Trello or shared Google docs. Same goes for dealing with COVID-threatened holiday gatherings. Can you agree to bundle up and celebrate together outdoors? If you can’t share your Thanksgiving meal in-person, can you each set up a laptop or iPad to Zoom or Facetime together for part of the meal? Can you make plans to do something else, virtually or not, at a later time?

Homer came up with solutions for her family members’ visits that work for everyone. And the conversations ultimately went well, Homer says, because her family was willing to listen and compromise.

“We’ll see what it’s like when it happens, but the bottom line with all of this is we all are going to have to make sacrifices for the greater good right now,” she says.



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