How to be a good listener

Many of us aren’t sure what to do when someone we care about has cancer. But often just being there for the person is the most important thing. Being a good listener will help you show empathy and support the person. Here are some tips:

  • Let your partner, relative or friend know that you have the time to sit and listen.
  • Turn off any distractions such as your mobile phone or the TV.
  • Show you are giving them your full attention. Nodding and making eye contact are good ways to do this.
  • Check you understand what they are saying by asking follow up questions or repeating back what you’ve heard.
  • If your relative or friend tells you their fears or worries, it’s important to let them be sad or upset.
  • Remember that silences don’t have to be awkward. Touching their hand or putting an arm around them may help more than words.
  • Don’t be afraid to respond to humour.
  • Try not to offer advice that hasn’t been asked for.

Being a good listener

Most of us feel helpless when faced with cancer. However, you can often help someone just by listening to them and letting them talk. Sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs the most.

Listening carefully is a skill that you can learn. It helps you be more supportive and understand better what your relative or friend needs. You can listen without feeling you have to have answers.

My advice would be to just listen and be there when they want to talk. Remember, don’t force them to speak. They will talk when they’re ready.


How to listen

When your relative or friend is talking, it’s important to give them your full attention. Here are some simple tips to follow.

Getting the setting right

Somewhere comfortable that offers privacy is best. Here are some things you can do to help:

  • Switch off your mobile phone and other distractions, like the TV.
  • Let them know you have time to sit and talk with them.
  • Keep your eyes at the same level as them. Sitting down next to the person or at an angle to each other, rather than face on, usually helps to make the setting feel less intense.
  • Sit close, but not too close. Sitting about 2–3 feet (60–90cm) away allows them personal space without being too far away to be able to talk intimately.
  • Sit quietly – this will give the impression of calmness, even though you may not feel relaxed.

Show you are listening

Try to look at the person as you’re listening, to show them they have your full attention. It’s also good to nod, occasionally, and encourage the person to talk by making comments such as ‘Hmmm’, ‘Uh-huh’ or ‘Yes’.

Check you’ve understood

Misunderstandings can happen if you assume that you know how the other person feels. Asking questions and giving feedback will help you check you’ve understood what they have said. It also shows that you are listening and trying to understand.

Questions you could ask include:

  • ‘Do you mean that…?’
  • ‘What did that feel like?’
  • ‘How do you feel now?’

It is also good to check what you’ve heard is right:

  • ‘What I’m hearing is…’
  • ‘It sounds like you’re saying…’

Keep an open mind

Try to avoid talking while the other person is talking. Wait for them to stop speaking before you start. Don’t get caught up with thinking about what you’re going to say next. Listening is not the same as waiting to talk.

If your relative or friend tells you about their fears or worries, it’s important to let them be sad or upset. It may be distressing for you to hear some of the things they say. However, it can really help them if you’re able to stay and just listen while they talk.

We have more information on coping with difficult emotions such as sadness or anger.

Respond with respect and understanding

It’s good to be open and honest about your feelings. Here are some things to think about:

  • Make time for both your feelings and your relative or friend’s feelings.
  • Give your opinion respectfully, but be aware your relative or friend may have a different opinion (we have more information on giving advice).
  • Treat the other person the way you think they would want to be treated.

Breaks in the conversation

If someone stops talking, it might mean they’re thinking about something painful or sensitive. Wait with them for a little while and then ask them if they want to talk about it. Don’t rush – it’s okay to wait until they feel ready to talk again.

Sometimes just being there and touching their hand or putting an arm around their shoulder can help more than words. If they pull their hand away or look uncomfortable, you’ll know this is a signal to give them space. But a touch may be just what’s needed to help them talk. It shows that you care and want to support them.

Respond to humour

If your relative or friend wants to use humour to help them cope, it’s good to respond to this. But don’t be the one to introduce humour into the conversation in case they don’t find this helpful.

Letting someone share their thoughts and fears without interruption can be liberating.


Laughter brings people together, and shared tears of laughter can be both healing and bonding.


Main points to think about

  • Check you understand what the person is saying – if you’re unsure what they mean or how they feel, just ask.
  • Remember, each person’s experience of cancer is different.
  • Don’t judge or offer advice that’s not been asked for – if you must offer advice, pause to consider how helpful it will be.
  • Respect the person’s feelings and wishes.
  • Respond to humour, if your relative or friend uses it.
  • Be open to hearing what the person has to say.
  • Show you are listening by nodding and making eye contact.
  • Allow your relative or friend to be sad or upset.
  • Acknowledge how difficult their situation must be.
  • Make sure you look after yourself as well as the person with cancer.
  • Seek support for yourself if you need to.

Back to If someone has cancer

Keeping in touch

There are lots of ways you can keep in touch with your loved one.

Things to avoid saying

Understanding things that might be unhelpful to say can make you more confident about talking with someone who has cancer.

Looking after yourself

Supporting a person with cancer can be both rewarding and demanding. Make sure you have the support you need.