It’s that time of year again—endless dinner parties, family gatherings, and office events marked on what feels like every corner of the calendar. While these events are meant to provide a much-needed release at the end of the year, the amount of effort they entail can leave many of us feeling more depleted than when we started.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. There are many simple tips we can use to get more out of our conversations, whether with loved ones or strangers, as well as to navigate challenging family relationships during this busy time.
Small talk and no action
One of the best parts of the holidays is having the time to come together and connect. But often, this connection remains surface level. Martin Vera, a leadership and life coach based in London, UK, says that when we reunite with people we don’t see very often, we tend to gravitate toward small talk because it feels safe.
Small talk has its time and place: research shows that fleeting social interactions with people, even strangers, can boost moods and our faith in humankind. But a night of rotating through a room to recount the same three major events that have happened in your life in the last year can leave you feeling drained, and it doesn’t do much in terms of deepening your social connections.
“Small talk is driving down a straight four-lane highway in the desert on cruise control,” says Vera. “We’ll get somewhere, but chances are we won’t remember any of the drive and will have wasted energy worrying if someone was going to cut us off.”
What are meaningful conversations?
Vera compares meaningful conversations to hikes in the forest, where we get to slow down, pay attention to our steps, and take some risks: “Meaningful conversations allow us to see others and feel seen by them, to feel a sense of intimacy, and to show up as ourselves.”
A meaningful conversation doesn’t need to be intense or serious—rather, it just needs to be a conversation that you find both enjoyable and enriching. We often shy away from these conversations because we underestimate how much others are interested in our lives, and we feel that making these types of conversations will be much more awkward and less enjoyable than science shows they actually are.
However, social psychology research has found that pairs who discuss “deep questions” are more likely to maintain their level of connection than those who keep to small talk.
Engaging in meaningful conversations
Just like hiking, Vera says it helps to prepare for meaningful conversations, and take breaks when we need them. You can start engaging in meaningful conversation with the following suggestions.
Ask better questions
In a TED Talk with over 23 million views, American journalist and author Celeste Headlee recommends using open-ended questions—questions that start with who, what, when, where, why, and how—to have better conversations.
For example, if people are recounting an event to you, try asking: “What was that like? How did that make you feel?” Stay curious about what the other person is saying and keep a balance of asking and listening.
Listen to answers
Practicing mindfulness—the state of placing all attention on the current moment—makes it easier to stay curious and ask good questions. Rather than worrying about what you’re going to say next or what the outcome of the conversation will be, you can focus on connecting the dots in their responses, increasing the chance that you’ll learn new things.
Be willing to share something about yourself
Sharing personal information—whether dreams, secrets, or aspirations—lights up the pleasure centers in your brain and releases oxytocin, known as the “love” hormone. Recounting shared moments and sharing a feeling of nostalgia also increases feelings of social connectedness, trust, and closeness, as does giving or asking for advice.
Draw healthy boundaries
Making an effort to go deeper with people around you doesn’t mean you are obliged to engage with people whose presence you find harmful. These relationships can feel particularly stressful around the holidays when interactions may be hard to avoid.
One way to navigate this is by setting healthy boundaries. First, decide what behaviors you are or aren’t willing to put up with. Then, communicate these red lines calmly, clearly, and consistently. If you feel a boundary is approaching, Vera recommends taking time to go for a walk or call a friend to allow for pausing and reflecting on the situation. If your boundaries aren’t being respected, take action by establishing—and sticking to—clear consequences.
You can also consider practicing “loving detachment,” the process of letting go of any need to control a person or situation.
Root to rise
If you can’t, or don’t want to, spend the holidays with family, there are still many other ways to nurture meaningful connections during this time. Think about getting involved with your community: are there any holiday events that you can attend to bring you closer to those around you, or that need volunteers to run smoothly?
Giving back can be particularly rewarding for people who may be missing or grieving friends or family members, as volunteering can make you feel physically and emotionally healthier.
Gratitude lists can be a great way to boost mood and positivity around the holidays. One study found that participants who spent 14 days listing moments they were grateful for each day reported higher happiness levels and overall life satisfaction.
Don’t forget about you!
Our focus is often on other people during the holidays, but don’t forget about self-care.
- Schedule self-care activities at the same time each day to make sure they don’t get missed.
- Engage in deep breathing, yoga, or other relaxation techniques.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Practice good sleep hygiene and healthy eating habits.