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4 Ways to Fight Back When Family Questions Your Career Choices

With the holidays around the corner, dinner table conversations about work are bound to come up.

It’s common to feel anxiety at the thought of explaining what you do for a living to a skeptical audience, especially when your job title can’t be summed up simply or straightforwardly.

Don’t panic yet.

It may seem difficult to get Aunt Sue to understand what the heck a Digital Strategist is or to convince Dad that you’re able to support yourself just fine thank you, but it’s not impossible.

Use these strategies to navigate tricky, sometimes triggering career conversations this holiday season.

1. Start with Questions

It’s drilled into us that the best way to get others to understand what we do is by wrapping it up in a quick, 30-second elevator speech. While your carefully crafted pitch impresses prospective employers, it may only confuse and alienate your loved ones.

Instead, gauge where your loved ones stand with understanding your career rather than immediately launching into explanation mode. Start with a broad, simple question such as “How familiar are you with [insert your profession]?” or “What do you know about [finance, sports marketing, etc]?”

By taking the lead, you have more control to steer the conversation in a positive direction. Think of it like a mini-market research challenge. It gives you the chance to unearth misconceptions they may have about what you do so you can correct them in conversation.

2. Focus on Framing

What might seem commonplace in a job description to you may be unfamiliar to others. You may know exactly what being a “Data Scientist” means while your family need more detail to understand what that entails.

You can use simple framing techniques to make it easier for people to wrap their heads around your nontraditional career and help dinner table talk flow more smoothly.

Avoid jargon. When you catch yourself using industry-specific terms or acronyms, offer clarification or replace them with everyday vocabulary.

Use analogies. For example, “Our company is similar to…” or “My job is like accounting mixed with strategy.”

Tell a story. Recount how you overcame a challenge or provide an example of a project you worked on from start to finish. People love to hear stories and it can be a more effective way to communicate with those who may not fully understand what you do.

3. Look at what’s not being said–and try to find common ground

Be careful not to misinterpret someone’s confusion about what you to do for a living with disapproval. Avoid jumping to conclusions that they’re judging your career choices.

A poorly worded question like, “Shouldn’t you be making more money?” may intend to express concern (though misguided and unwarranted, perhaps). Before reacting defensively, give them the benefit of the doubt that they may in fact be coming from a supportive place.

Then carefully respond, acknowledging and empathizing, while standing up for a lifestyle you’ve chosen. An example of this would be, “Entrepreneurship comes with a lot of risks, and I certainly understand why that might be scary to you.” You could go on to explain how you’ve accounted for financial uncertainties or even get vulnerable about your hopes, dreams and fears.

If you need to set a firmer boundary you can say, “Look I don’t think you meant to hurt me, but your comments were harsh. I’m not going to respond to you when you speak to me that way.” Often people are overly judgmental because they’re jealous or threatened by your success.

It’s more about their own baggage than anything you’ve done.

4. Pick your battles

If you sense the conversation is heading in a bad direction, redirect to other topics of conversation. Draw on benign connection points like a recipe you’ve been dying to try or talk about a TV show you can’t get enough of.

Sometimes defending our career choices can be a losing battle, especially if you’re dealing with a bully or highly critical family member. Walk away if necessary.

Explaining what you do can be a challenge given the complex nature of work today. Whatever you do, don’t diminish the hard work you’ve done to reach your goals. At the end of the day it’s your career and not anyone else’s. Even if your nontraditional or entrepreneurial career takes more time to explain, it’s worth it. It makes you who you are.

Follow the steps above to alleviate as much stress as possible and make this holiday one for the books–in a good way.

4 Ways to Fight Back When Family Questions Your Career Choices

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Melody Wilding, LMSW is a performance coach, licensed social worker, and has a Masters from Columbia. She helps established and rising managers and executives advance in their careers. Her clients work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP, and Deloitte. She also helps entrepreneurs take bold steps to grow their businesses. Melody has helped over 10,000 smart, self-aware people like you. Her coaching gives you actionable strategies to reach your goals. You get concrete steps to overcome the complex struggles of success. Melody loves arming ambitious people with tools and tactics to boost their confidence. She can teach you skills for assertiveness and influence. Her specialties include better managing your emotions at work. Melody also teaches Human Behavior at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. She writes about psychology and careers for Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and more. Click here and grab the FREE COURSE to go from insecure to unstoppable confidence 5 DAYS TO FREEDOM FROM SELF-DOUBT..

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APA Reference
Wilding, M. (2018). 4 Ways to Fight Back When Family Questions Your Career Choices. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 5 Dec 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.