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What To Say When Your Relatives (or You) Are Unemployed

Picture this: You walk into Thanksgiving dinner and bump into your aunt. You haven't seen her since last Thanksgiving. But you know she was laid off in August, because your mother told you. What do you say?

Or maybe you're the unemployed one. Your cousin takes one look at you, says, "Hi! Warm weather for Thanksgiving!" and then scurries off to help with the hors d'oeuvres.

What do you do? Avoid the topic for the next six hours?

Out with it, the experts advise. If you say nothing to acknowledge your unemployed relative's situation, you'll come off as heartless. The guest goes home wondering why no one in the family cares enough to ask how they're doing. It's important for family members to say that they're there, that they get it, it must be a very difficult time, and to offer support.

And if you're seeking a job, realize your relatives might be feeling awkward. Also, they might have contacts that can help you. So open up. "People tend to quarantine off their family and friends from their job hunt," says Anne Baber, co-author of Make Your Contacts Count. "It's tied up in family dynamics of not talking about money. People need to get over that."

Here, from Baber and John M McKee, a business life coach based in Los Angeles, are some good words to use at family gatherings when relatives (or you) are unemployed.

For the concerned family members:

  • "Ask the same question in a couple of different ways to help people let down their guard. Start with 'How are you?' After you get a response on that, follow it up with, 'How are you doing?' When you get a response on that, say, 'How's it going?' They sound like the same question, but if you look at them and use them in a sequence like that, you'll get different answers. Some people might resent that, but generally I don't find that. The first time, you're just being polite, it's pro forma. The second time you really are interested. The third time they're going to tell you something."-McKee
  • "I heard from Uncle Matt that you haven't been working. How are things going?"
  • "How can I help?"
  • "Tell me about a time when you felt like you were really doing a super good job at your job, so I can imagine you in that kind of situation." -Baber
  • "What is it that you enjoy doing?" Thanksgiving is a great time to be self-reflective. Brainstorm all the ways that people could use their skills. Talk about interesting dinner conversation!

For the job seeker:

  • Don't skip dinner, even if you're tempted to hibernate. Deal with the issue openly and honestly and take the support of the family. You might not get that anywhere else for the rest of the year.
  • "Every person your relatives know is a potential lead. The problem is that often relatives don't really know what you do. They sort of have a job title attached to you. But they don't really know what your skills are, what you're really good at. So for the job seeker, the best thing to do is to come up with two stories that show you saving the day, serving the client, solving the problem. Come up with action stories that teach your relatives what you're good at. Leave in your relatives' minds a brilliant picture of you being successful." -Baber
  • Take copies of your resume to Thanksgiving dinner. Why not?
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