“Can you please pass me the butter?”

Musings on Communication Strategies during the holiday season by a private practice speech language pathologist in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

As most of you know, I wholeheartedly believe that communication is one of the single most important actions we do as human beings. Humans are a social breed and whether we consciously know it or not, we need to connect with others, even if we tend towards introversion. The holiday season is what I call “prime time for peopling” and even though the holidays are usually a time when we visit family and friends with lots of happiness and joy, there can also be a darker side to the holiday season. Often the extensive preparation, stress of trying to get things done, and imbibing can make one feel drained, tired, and more easily irritated.  This can set the stage for both good and tenuous communication interactions. 

Maybe you are thinking, I am confused about the title of this blogpost? Why do we need someone to “pass us the butter?”. If you bear with me, I will explain in more detail as we discuss some important tips for communication during the holiday season.

In my private practice as a speech and language pathologist with adolescents and adults in Ottawa, Ontario, I usually dedicate at least one full session to what I call “Please pass the butter” Communication Therapy. I did not always do this, but year after year, my clients began to ask for such sessions. There is always “that one family member”, you know the one…the one who talks non-stop, who pinches your cheek without asking, or gives you the tightest hugs (even though you may not be a hugger). Most of my clients didn’t want to hurt feelings, but also felt awkward to speak up for themselves. Over the years, I have found that when someone does not know how to communicate effectively, over time there will be a “blow up situation”, and that always ends badly. The Speech and Language Hearing association discusses the importance of communication health here: Caring About Communication Health | Speech-Language & Audiology Canada (sac-oac.ca). Effective communication is imperative to our health and wellbeing and is an important aspect of living a healthy life.

It is important when I provide speech therapy to adults and adolescents in Ottawa, that I prepare them to properly connect with their world during this busy season. The tips I share with my clients are suited for all of us. Let’s talk about my top ten holiday communication tips (and the butter passing).  Do you like butter? Are you a vegan thinking, why does this woman want someone to pass her the butter and what does it have to do about communication? Keep reading ……

So why do we need someone to “pass us the butter?”. If you bear with me, I will explain in more detail as we discuss some important tips for communication for the holiday season.

So here are some important tips to keep yourself sane during the holidays, allow you to connect to others, and how to get all the butter you want!  And when everyone is happy, we hold hands and sing a joyful song to the world (okay, maybe that last part is a bit much, but we must make it entertaining)!

  1. Practice mindful listening, and alternatively, mindful-not listening, where you smile and nod  when you need a listening break. Rebecca Shafir wrote an entire book about this. She is a speech language pathologist, and certainly knows her stuff. Learn more about what Rebecca says here: The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction: Shafir MA CCC, Rebecca Z: 9780835608268: Amazon.com: Books
  2. Always have an exit strategy.  What is an exit strategy? It is simply a way to plan your clean get-a-way. For instance, if you know you can only tolerate an hour at one event, take your own car, and approach the host as soon as you get there. Pull the host aside and tell them how thankful you are they invited you, present them with a small gift, then explain you may have to excuse yourself early. Always explain how you do not want to interrupt their evening, so you will just provide a wink and a nod as you head out the door. This allows you to come and go as you please without offending anyone or without waiting a long time to say goodbye.
  3. Just say NO! I can not stress this enough; you do NOT have to attend every holiday gathering that is offered to you. Even better, you also do NOT need to provide any excuse as to why you are not attending. You’re welcome!
  4. Now……as for the butter?  Here is what I mean by that, and I honestly wish I could take the credit for this saying, but I learned it from a communication course. It came from learning about power phrases. You can learn about power phrases here: Power Phrases: The Perfect Words To Say It Right And Get The Results You Want by Meryl Runion (goodreads.com). How I teach this concept is by explaining that the tone of voice one uses when we say, “Can you please pass me the butter”, is so confident and matter of fact, that no one is NOT going to pass you the butter. If you said it hesitantly or without purpose, then maybe…. but you get the point! Have a few power phrases/“please pass the butter” statements prepared ahead of time for conversations that trigger you or that you know you may need a quick response. For instance, “thanks so much, I am going to give that some thought.” “That is really interesting, let me think about it”. “I’m not really sharing or discussing that aspect of my life right now, but when I do, you will be the first to know”. You get the idea. 
  5. If noise and distraction are difficult for you, be sure to pull people aside, one by one and take them into a quieter area to get in some good conversation time.
  6. Avoid talking about any charged topics, yes, I said it, no matter what, no matter who it is. Just do it! That means, politics, religion, abortion, or any other polarizing hot topics.
  7. Listen actively to your communication partners (lean in, listen to them with your entire body, nod your head often, and repeat back snippets of their story). This keeps them talking and gives you a break!
  8. Practice conversation starters, ice breakers, and how to effectively end conversations! This comes more naturally to some of us then others. Find more ideas of that type of thing here:(62 Ways to Politely End a Conversation In ANY Situation (scienceofpeople.com).
  9. Know how to smile and nod. We simply can not listen actively the entire time, learn to smile and nod and how to make yourself look interested.
  10. Finally, avoid alcohol! Why? because it’s poison, and we do not need it. Even though every commercial and social media account makes it look glamorous and fun and insinuates a bottle of wine will loosen you up to communicate better. It is a false concept.  It clouds judgment, reduces our inhibitions, and makes the holidays unsafe for everyone. Again, just say NO.

I enjoy the holiday season and look forward to practicing all of these strategies each year to keep my cup full, ensure I am getting the connection I crave, but setting solid communication boundaries so I continue to love myself and others. I hope you will incorporate some of these into your repertoire and I wish you all a happy and safe holiday season. 

Singing off for now, Lisa Abbott Moore, adolescent and adult speech language pathologist in Ottawa, Ontario Canada, where the air is cold, but our hearts are warm- eh?