How to be a good listener

There is no one way to talk about cancer. Just being there for someone is often the most important thing. Following some simple rules of good listening will help you build your relationship and show empathy and support.

Start by finding a quiet, private setting. Show your partner, relative or friend that you have the time to sit and listen. Removing physical obstacles, like desks or bedside tables, can help. Nodding, asking follow up questions or repeating back what you’ve heard can show you are giving them your full attention. And silences don’t have to be awkward. Touch and non-verbal cues such as smiling, or even crying together, can play important roles too.

Don’t be offended if the person doesn’t always feel like talking about their illness. Sometimes chatting about everyday things instead can be reassuring. Simply asking whether they feel like talking will help you judge whether it’s appropriate.

Being there for someone with cancer

It’s important to realise is that there is no magic formula, phrase or approach that is the ’right’ thing to say or do. There isn’t a right set of words or attitudes that will always help. If you want to help someone who’s facing a difficult time, just wanting to help and offering to be there for that person is what matters most.

One of the most important things is not what we say – it’s that we’re there and that we listen. When you understand the few simple rules of good listening, you’ll be a great help and support. Listening can help build a relationship between you both that allows you to be even more supportive and to know what your relative or friend needs.

Being a good listener can help you understand in part what another person is feeling. We can never completely understand another person’s thoughts and feelings, but listening helps us understand enough for them to feel that we empathise with them. Empathy means sensing what another person is feeling. It’s an important way of showing love and concern for another person. This, in itself, can be very reassuring to a person with cancer.

As a listener, you don’t need to have all the answers. You can help someone just by listening and simply allowing them to talk. A lot of the most awkward gaps in communication are due to not knowing some of the principles that help people talk freely. These are discussed on the following pages.

The right setting

This is important and is worth taking time to get right at the start of the conversation. You should:

  • Switch off your mobile phone so you won’t be interrupted.
  • Take off your coat – this signals that you’re not in a rush to be somewhere else.
  • Get yourself comfortable.
  • Let your relative or friend know that you have time to sit and talk with them.
  • Sit quietly – this will give the impression of calmness even though you may not feel relaxed.
  • Suggest a cup of tea if you feel it’ll help.
  • Keep your eyes at the same level as the person you’re talking to. This almost always means sitting down. If your relative or friend is in hospital, sitting by the bed is better than standing.

Get some privacy

Try to keep the setting as private as possible. For example, in hospital avoid talking in a corridor or on a staircase, where passers-by can hear what you’re saying. There may be a day room you can go to. If the person you’ve come to see is in bed, you could suggest drawing the curtains to get as much privacy as possible. Be aware of how loudly you are talking, especially in a hospital ward where your conversation could be overheard by others. Talking too loudly may put the person off saying anything themselves. On the other hand, don’t speak so quietly that they struggle to hear what you’re saying.

Where you sit

If you’re too far away, a conversation can feel awkward and formal, but if you’re too close, the other person may feel their space has been invaded. Be especially sensitive to this if you’re talking to someone who’s in bed and not able to move themselves.

It helps to make sure there are no physical obstacles (desks, bedside tables and so on) between you. A barrier such as a desk can have a distancing effect on your conversation. If something is in the way, you could say something like, 'It’s not very easy to talk across this table; can I move it aside for a moment?'

Finding out if someone wants to talk

Your relative or friend may not be in the mood to talk to you that day. Their treatment or symptoms may mean they don’t feel well enough. Or they may just want to talk about ordinary things, such as television programmes, sports events or what’s been happening in your life. There’s something very reassuring about everyday small talk, and sometimes people simply want to enjoy a ‘normal’ conversation. Don’t be offended or feel it’s your fault if they don’t want to tackle big questions such as how they’re feeling about their illness just then. It will still help them if you simply listen and pay attention while they talk.

You may get ‘a feel’ about whether your relative or friend wants to talk. If you’re not sure you can always ask, ‘Do you feel like talking?’ This is better than going straight into a deep conversation (such as a discussion about how they’re feeling), especially if they’re tired or have just been talking to someone else.

Encourage a person with cancer to talk

You can encourage the person who’s ill to talk about what’s on their mind. Simple things work very well. You can try nodding or saying things like,

  • ‘Yes.’, ‘I see.’ or
  • ‘What happened next?’

These sound simple, but during stressful times, it’s the simple things that help.

If the person starts to cry as they talk about their situation, you could say something like, ‘I can see how upsetting that is for you.’ If you are very close to the person, you may simply hold their hand and say, ‘I’m sorry that you’re having to go through this.’

You can also show that you’re listening by repeating two or three words from the person’s last sentence. This helps the person feel that their words are being understood. For example, if the person says, ‘I went to the hospital and the consultant ordered lots of x-rays.’ and then lapses into silence, you may say after a little while, ‘Ordered lots of x-rays?’ This may help them start talking again.

You can also repeat back what you’ve heard – partly to check that you’ve got it right and partly to show that you’re listening and trying to understand. You may say things like, ‘So you mean that …’ or ‘If I’ve understood you, you feel …’ You may find your own way of saying this, especially if you know each other very well.

Eye contact

Looking at the person as you’re listening and talking tells them that you’re giving them your undivided attention. But remember that while in some cultures it’s okay to look directly into someone’s eyes, in others it’s not. Be aware of how the other person feels, and don’t maintain eye contact for so long that it feels as though you’re staring at them.

If you’re talking about difficult issues and, during a painful moment, you can’t look directly at each other, you can still stay close by. You could hold their hand or touch them if you know them well enough to do this.

How to listen well

When someone is talking, it’s important to show that you’re listening. Don’t get caught up with thinking about how you’re going to reply or what you’re going to say next. If you’re thinking about your response, this may stop you from listening properly. Listening is not the same as waiting to talk.

To listen properly, you need to give your full attention to what your friend or loved one is saying. Remember that you listen with your whole body. If you look at your relative or friend, sit facing them and indicate that you’re taking in what they’re saying, they’ll notice this. If, however, you’re looking around the room, moving your arms and legs restlessly, or interrupting them and changing the subject, they will not feel heard.

Avoid talking while they’re talking – wait instead for them to stop speaking before you start. If they interrupt you while you’re saying something with a ‘but’ or ‘I thought’ or something similar, you should stop and let them carry on.

Silence and non-verbal communication

If someone stops talking, it usually means that they're thinking about something painful or sensitive. You may be able to sense what they’re thinking or feeling. Wait with them for a little while – hold their hand or touch them if you know them well enough – and then ask them what they were thinking about. Don’t rush, even if the silence seems to last for a long time. Most of us aren't used to sitting silently with another person, and we may feel awkward or embarrassed. There's no need. It's perfectly fine to wait until they feel ready to talk again.

Sometimes you may feel that you don’t know what to say. If this is the case, it’s fine to say nothing at all, or ‘I don’t know what to say’. Sometimes just being there and offering a touch or an arm around a shoulder can help more than words.

Non-verbal communication (communicating in ways other than speaking) is just as important as words. We all learn to pick up subtle non-verbal signals from others. A smile, a frozen face with staring eyes, a restless movement of the body, slumped shoulders, a tremor in the voice – these all speak volumes.

This also applies to physical contact. For example, if you touch your relative or friend and they pull their hand away or look uncomfortable, you’ll know that 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. They may cry when you touch them. This is natural and can be healing so allow them time to cry. You may find that you cry too – crying together can often be good for both of you.

Back to If someone has cancer

Talking and listening

Talking and listening can help your loved one make sense of difficult experiences.

How to talk

If your friend or relative has cancer, talking openly will help you understand their experience and build mutual trust.

Looking after yourself

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