This article is part of the 7 Tips series.
Go Deeper at the Table
Who doesn’t love a happy family gathering at the holidays? In an ideal world there is good food, laughter, genuine fellowship, and all things merry and bright. Those are some high expectations, and we all know that they aren’t always met. Maybe this year, you are simply hoping for some meaningful conversations when the family is together. This may have been a hard year for a loved one, and you want to understand her hurting heart and give her encouragement. This may have been a joyous year for another loved one, and you want to hear how his experiences have grown him. Or maybe you want to hear how everyone is really doing, how their faith is progressing, or how they view and are impacted by the current cultural landscape.
As an invested family member, you crave the deeper conversations that can flow from seeing those you love face to face. Preparation for your family gathering will involve shopping, decorating, and meal planning. But it will also involve preparing your heart, especially as you consider how to achieve deeper conversations at your family gathering. To help you do that well, we offer two tips for you to consider before your family gathers, three tips to implement during your family’s time together, and two last tips to help you reflect on the conversations you had with loved ones. These seven suggestions will enrich your family discussions and will help keep you dependent on the Lord for every word you speak.
1. Be prayerful.
Before your holiday gathering, lay the groundwork for meaningful conversations by praying in advance. Prayerfully acknowledge your dependence upon the Lord for conversations that will honor him and bless others. Ask the Lord to help you to be aware of the deeper needs of your family members. Pray that your words will be gracious and self-controlled, displaying the love of Christ and honoring his name. Bring each loved one before the Lord and intercede for them. Ask the Lord for special moments to sincerely connect with each person. Pray for wisdom to make the best use of your time—and conversations—with others (Eph. 5:16).
2. Be prepared.
The Bible commends those who prepare: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance” (Prov. 21:5a). To have abundant conversations at your next family gathering, prepare yourself with various conversation topics ahead of time. What topics would be of positive, general interest? What topics might be a blessing to everyone? Consider things you could discuss as a group, such as what is appreciated about others at the table, an unexpected blessing of the past year, or a hope for the year to come. Also think in advance of specific questions for individual family members, as you may have a few opportunities for one-on-one conversations. Be mindful of their personal interests and special concerns (Phil. 2:4).
3. Be gracious.
Your time with family should be filled with grace toward one another, and that will largely be evidenced by the type of conversations that take place. In Ephesians 4:29, we learn how to speak with grace: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Because of the lovingkindness we have received in Christ, we are exhorted to avoid destructive speech and to instead have conversations that are appropriately timed and a blessing to all those involved.
Occasionally, a family member might dominate conversations, or worse, put an end to friendly dialogue with words of bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, or malice (Eph. 4:32). That kind of talk sabotages deeper and more open exchanges; conversations may quickly become awkward and shallow, or tense and heated. Be aware of those moments, and graciously re-direct these discussions to include others or to change the topic. Seek to gently guide conversations toward mutual edification and encouragement.
4. Be considerate.
To achieve deeper conversations with your family, consider the unique circumstances represented among your loved ones. Rejoice with the joyful, but also help bear the burdens of the discouraged or sorrowing (Rom. 12:15). With genuine excitement, share in the joy of an engagement, new baby, or job promotion. Likewise, be discerning of the comfort or privacy needed by the one who may be recently separated, infertile, or struggling financially.
Be open to what the Lord may accomplish as you love these dear ones as Christ has loved you.
Perhaps your family is grieving a loved one who is missing from the table for the first time. Some might enjoy talking about your relative because it means that they are not forgotten. Some might be too emotionally tender to tolerate hearing the name of the person they have lost. Be sensitive to the emotions around the table. Out of concern for all, you might seek to guide certain conversations toward more private sharing. You will bless others when you humbly consider the various needs of your family members in these conversations (Phil. 2:3).
5. Be attentive.
As you engage with family, remember that the most fruitful conversations require good listening skills (James 1:19). Listen for the purpose of understanding your family members. First, allow them space to talk. Like yielding to traffic on a busy highway, give others the right-of-way in conversations. Don’t interrupt a loved one’s sentences in your own discussions, and let good exchanges you hear between other family members linger. When you do interject something, be careful that it will help the discussion to continue and deepen.
Second, ask good questions to draw out the desires and joys of each guest: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5). Ask questions that will enable you to understand the how and why of someone else’s experiences, not just the what and when. Be especially sensitive to the quiet or shy family member; seek to draw that person into a discussion with an appropriate question and a focused, attentive ear. Realize that a deeper conversation with that loved one might not happen at the table but may take place one-on-one while cleaning up in the kitchen or resting by the fire afterward.
6. Be thankful.
After your family gathering, reflect on the conversations that were had, and give thanks to the Lord for the discussions he provided and the ways he answered your prayers (Ps. 66:19-20). Even if some of the conversations were not as smooth or significant as you had hoped, be grateful for the steps taken toward deeper dialogue and the opportunities God gave your family to connect once again. Give thanks for each unique loved one and the exchanges you had with them. Prayerfully recognize God’s presence and help as you sought to have purposeful conversations. Praise the Lord for his kind providences throughout your family’s time together.
7. Be proactive.
As you reflect on the conversations you had with family members, begin to look forward to the possibilities of future meaningful discussions. Spend some time considering the individual needs and interests you discovered, or were reminded of, during your family gathering. You may realize that a family member is suffering or burdened with a concern and might appreciate a follow-up conversation, text, or note. Offer a listening ear, share an encouraging Bible verse, and let her know you’re praying for her situation.
A loved one might be lonely and would appreciate another invitation for a meal. Maybe another family member would welcome continuing a conversation that began when you were together. Be open to what the Lord may accomplish as you love these dear ones as Christ has loved you (Eph. 5:2a). Be willing to love sacrificially by laying aside your time, comfort, and interests to pursue meaningful interactions with your family. You never know how the Lord may use you—and your words.
Cheryl Marshall and Caroline Newheiser are the authors of When Words Matter Most: Speaking Grace with Truth to Those You Love.
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