In normal years, making holiday plans with family and friends can be an awkward waltz of who’s invited, who’s sleeping where and how to painlessly shut down Uncle Al when he starts in on politics. (Not this year, please, Al.) But in this wretched 2020—when public health experts warn that gatherings could fuel the pandemic—negotiations over Thanksgiving and subsequent holidays have taken on a more urgent tone.

With the right preparation and best practices borrowed from the management world, those difficult conversations about making and breaking plans don’t have to be fraught with tension, said Tricia Homer, director of business communications for Smith’s master’s programs and a faculty lecturer.

Tricia Homer headshotHomer teaches MBA students presentation and communication skills for managing clients and teams, but the expectant mother—whose first child is due on Thanksgiving—also has recent experience navigating COVID-19 conversations with family, including eager grandparents-to-be.

“They all want to come,” said Homer, who has spent her pregnancy working remotely, getting groceries delivered, and meeting only limited visitors outdoors with masks on and physical distancing. “I don’t want to quell their excitement, but we also have to figure out how to keep everyone safe.”

It has led to a few difficult discussions, but with the right frameworks—the same ones she teaches to MBA students to use as future managers—Homer said it’s possible to get through the unusual holidays to come without hard feelings. Here’s how:

Know your audience. You likely already have good insight on how your family and close friends react in various situations, said Homer. Think about their values, their disposition and how they may hear you. Homer knows her mother is emotional, while her father-in-law is practical, so she could use that information to help shape her conversations with them.

Choose your mode of delivery. Tailor the chosen communication medium for the individual you need to speak with, based on their communication style. Just don’t make it a text, said 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 said. 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 MBA students the modes of persuasion: emotion (pathos), logic (logos) and credibility (ethos). She said they come in handy for tough conversations too: Are you going to appeal to their emotional side or their logical side, or is a conversation based on trust and credibility most important? 

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, said 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.”

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 said. And you should be neither defensive nor 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 try not to be 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 said. Express gratitude and grace, but bide your time if you’re not ready to answer. Say you need to check your calendar or consult with your spouse, or suggest scheduling a later time to have the conversation.

Focus on the solutions, not the problem. 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. The 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: Her mom will come before her due date to quarantine and help out when the baby arrives. Her husband will drive to pick up his mother after the baby comes to minimize the risk of germs from travel, while her father-in-law will plan to visit later. The conversations leading to these solutions ultimately went well, Homer said, 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 said.