You want to have a family dinner – at the table, where you’re all having a discussion – but then you get to dinner time and you’re so tired. Turning on the TV and vegging out while you eat your veggies sounds so much better.
Why do we hesitate? Why does it feel like it takes effort to sit at the table with these people we love so dearly?
Oddly, it’s because we’re together so much. Because we can say anything any time we want, a silence often descends when the chance to talk presents itself. And that silence can feel scary or burdensome.
We know what we want to say when they eat the last slice of quiche and then leave the pan sitting there on the counter instead of washing it. We know what we want to say when they’re on the phone all the time and never want to talk to us. We all have conflict in our lives with the people we love. Normal.
The reason a family dinner table discussion is helpful is that we want happy conversations to outnumber the ones with conflict. Do you believe me when I say happiness is something we practice? Think of how you communicate when you’re annoyed. You might not do it with words. You might offer a cold shoulder instead, but you want to let the offending person know: you’re irritating me.
Are you equally compelled to let someone know they are a pleasure to live with? I’m not. Hence the need to be purposeful about connecting in a positive way.
All it takes is 10 minutes. If you can stay at the table for 10 minutes you will have family discussions. Not every night. Not solving-the-problems-of-the-world discussions all the time. But enough. Enough to draw you closer.
Silence is the beginning of shifting into talking. Words and conversations don’t bubble up until there’s a feeling of spaciousness and permission. It doesn’t last long and the more you practice, the easier it gets.
Rule 1: Stay for 10 minutes
Rule 2: Have some conversation starters
- High/Low: what was your best moment of the day? Your worst moment?
- One Thing: What’s the one thing you want us to know today?
- Senses: what’s the best (or memorable) smell of today? Sight? Sound? Taste?
- Primer words: what was ____ today. Insert a variety of words: cozy. Rocky. Lonely. Frightening.
Why it Matters
Since avoiding conflict isn’t a reliable option, instead we can up the ratio of pleasant encounters to counterbalance the conflict.
When you share a meal and learn even something tiny about your kid like my cozy moment was coming home and putting on my soft socks, your heart does this amazing thing: it softens.
With each conflict, we armor up. Our heart gets a little harder. But when we have a moment of discovery or warmth we soften. Soft hearts make for more tolerant people. Tolerance makes conflict less likely.
How it Works
You’re creating a ritual of connection. The more you do it, the easier it is. Your 10 minutes becomes a container for conversation. Trust. Wait. And, most importantly, stay. But not for ever. Just for 10 minutes. Then try again the next day.
The first time, even the first few times it feels awkward. That’s why it’s important to keep it brief. The 10-minute mark arrives and people are antsy. Excuse the kids from the table. Let yourselves disperse. Then repeat the next day.
Sometimes it takes us our subconscious a while to notice a window. Our physical bodies go through the dinner table ritual four days in a row, and then, suddenly, that fifth day? We have stories to tell. 10 minutes becomes 30.
Stories are shy. They don’t want to arrive until they are positive they are welcome. The 10-minute window is exactly right for a story to sense a safe zone.
So when you sit down to the family dinner tonight (or tomorrow, or next Wednesday) don’t wait for instant gratification. Picture that story you want to hear and whisper to it. This is your spot. This is your spot. I really want to hear you. Be patient and maintain the simple, short gathering.
Pick a time when you are willing to commit to family dinner for five nights in a row. That is enough time to create the container.
If you do one on Wednesday and don’t repeat again until Sunday, that may not be enough to comfortably cement in a ritual.
Once you’ve done your five nights, then you can reduce to four if you want. It might help to pick a few anchors: Tuesday Night Tacos, or Breakfast for dinner Fridays.
My recommendation is to have a family dinner at least two nights a week once you’ve established your ritual, but once you practice you might find you enjoy having dinner at the table most nights. And remember, the habit is more important than the outcome. With practice, people will tell their stories when they want.