A storytelling primer for holiday survival

I write this post in the knowledge that many folks today are downshifting from work to enjoy a Thanksgiving break. This can be a time of mixed blessings. True, you can probably stretch the Thursday holiday into the better part of a week off. Then again, you do have to sit through that big dinner, and all that family time.

For many, this is pure joy. But for you, those long hours spent with folks you see only occasionally, or sometimes have never met, can generate more indigestion than Aunt Pudge’s macaroni and cheese. 

Here’s where storytelling can rescue you. Follow these three cornerstone practices to turn potentially stressful Turkey Day gatherings into events that people will remember for years:

1)      Keep the focus off you

If you need to feel good about yourself, go stand in front of a mirror on Wednesday and spell out everything that makes you so marvelous. Then, put it all in a bag and zip it up.

Because here’s the truth: People usually don’t care about you as much as they care about themselves. They tend to be too preoccupied with their own concerns. (One exception: if you’re pathetic, they’ll certainly want to hear all about it; however, if you got that big promotion, if you just started dating a fashion model, or if your trip to Spain was totally awesome – believe me, most people will smile politely then change the subject.)

Be selfless. Great “storytellers” understand empathy. Begin your conversations with what you know to be interesting to the people around you. Don’t put in your own two cents unless specifically asked.

2)      Generate experiences, not opinions

Most healthy families have a standing rule: no talking about politics or religion. In other words, let’s not wander into the land of formless, self-indulgent opinions.

If you want meaningful conversations, ask questions that inspire people to share the experiences that made them who they are. Here, for example, is one surefire way to succeed at a party: Find the couple who are obviously in love (they’re either quite young or old), and ask them, “How did you meet?” Listen closely and ask three follow-up questions. They’ll fall in love with you.

Remember, get people talking about specific events: moments in time, struggles, important characters (usually themselves in younger skin). Yes, your Uncle Buster may grab every storyline and twist it back to his raging love for Donald Trump. Don’t take the bait. Instead, ask him, “What was the most important thing you’ve ever done?” And if he says, “I voted for Donald Trump,” just move on and ask somebody else.

3)      Cultivate a curious mind

In a terrific profile in The New York Times, Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s legendary interview series “Fresh Air,” offers this sage insight: The secret to being a good conversationalist is curiosity. As she notes, the key to a good formal interview and a relaxed chat alike is “being genuinely curious, and wanting to hear what the other person is telling you.”

Too often, people in a conversation are only waiting for you to stop talking so that they can state that fantabulous thing that they believe everyone needs to hear. Don’t be that person. Listen actively, think about what you learn, and ask a question designed to learn more.

Bonus: Here’s Terry’s one great tip for opening any conversation with someone new: Simply say, “Tell me about yourself.”

A final note: If you faithfully follow this guidance, there’s a chance that it might change you, ever so slightly, for the better. So please, harvest new experiences from the people you meet, marinate them in generous measures of curiosity and kindness, and see what comes out of the oven. You might find your holiday meal to be something for which you can be truly thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!