Knowing the right thing to say in the right moment is hard enough, but what happens when you need words for some of the hardest parts of our lives? Will you be able to express how you feel, or will your words fall flat?
Some people just have a knack for words, but if you don’t, there’s hope. You can learn to communicate through difficult times through practice and research, just like any other skill. So when someone you love is sick, or if you need words to encourage a caregiver close to you, we’ve got some places for you to get started.
Why Should I Practice Empathy?
Empathy is the practice of deeply understanding the emotions of others. When someone is experiencing a difficult time, compassion can help hold the relationship together and provide a solid foundation for support.
Through empathy, you can learn to accept and validate the feelings and experiences of others, helping you get through the hackneyed sayings we often lob at those experiencing hardship. No one wants to hear empty words when some of the worst things are happening to them, so building your empathy skills is an excellent place to start.
Melody Wilding, an executive performance coach and human behavior professor, outlines seven things she sees highly empathetic people do regularly.
- Be fully present – You may feel distracted by your devices or be listening to respond, but that can cause rifts in your understanding of the other person. People who practice being fully present without distractions often fare better when it comes to being empathetic.
- Be an active listener – When you listen, are you crafting your response at the same time? Unfortunately, that’s not truly listening. Instead, listen to understand by using helpful tactics like reflecting, affirming, and encouraging.
- Pay attention to the nonverbal – Nonverbal communication holds a lot of clues for how a person is feeling and how they’re responding. If someone seems uncomfortable, you can ask them gently to explain their feelings to help you better understand.
- Utilize silence – We often jump in to fill in sentences or offer advice, but one of the best things we can do is use silence to allow someone to process fully.
- Ask questions – Instead of giving advice, ask questions instead. You’ll better understand the listener’s perspective and be able to tailor your responses.
- Think about “we” instead of “me” – Using “we” statements can help foster a connection between you and the other person, but be careful not to sound patronizing.
- Take a different perspective – Imagining what others are feeling can help you change your mindset about a whole situation. If your friend or someone else is sick, they may not always respond to you the way you expect. Reframing your perspective can help you maintain your relationship.
Taking on empathetic aspects can help transform the way to respond to others, and could be a way to finally communicate what you need to say to someone who is sick. It’s a vital part of your skill set.
Why It’s All In The Angle
One thing that’s important to remember is how you approach speaking to someone who is sick. There are a few things that are important to remember.
Saying that you know things will turn out fine may seem like you’re keeping a positive track, but this type of sentiment isn’t helpful. The chances are that it’s more annoying than anything else. The same goes for the other classics – “everything happens for a reason” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
Platitudes aren’t meant to be helpful and may end up making the sick person feel like they can’t be honest with you. It’s stressful having to keep up appearances when you’re around, and that could lead to further complications.
Instead, focus on questions that ask them about how they’re feeling, offering to do specific tasks, or just talking about other things. And don’t forget the importance of silence. Sometimes, it’s nice to have someone lend their presence and not their words.
Take The Burden
“What can I do?” may seem like a polite question, but it puts a lot of pressure on sick people to respond. They may not even know what they need themselves or may feel like they’re a burden.
A better thing to do is to ask questions that are centered around specific actions. For example, “I’m bringing dinner on Thursday. Would you like roast chicken or tacos?” provides the person with some choice but eliminates the need for them to take charge of the situation.
You can also visit with the intent to do one chore. “Can I do your dishes?” could be a good option, followed by “I have to be going.” Ensuring you don’t overstay your welcome is a huge consideration with visitation and will help relieve the burden.
Don’t Make It All About You
Humans want to bond and find common ground. We’re social creatures, after all. In our pursuit of bonding, we may spend a lot of time recounting our own experiences with the very thing our friends are going through.
This tendency can lead to us talking on and on about situations we think are the same thing. However, for the sick person, this may be an annoying, frustrating derailing or not match their experience at all.
So, if your mother’s college roommate’s sister’s husband had a chronic illness that may or may not be the same one as your friend or colleague, it’s best to keep that to yourself.
What To Say When Someone You Love Is Sick
There are quite a few things you can say to your sick loved one. Whether it’s in the beginning or ongoing support you’re offering, here’s how to approach talking to your loved one from several different angles and situations.
The written word is great because you can take the time to think about what you want to say. Plus, they can keep your note with them for encouragement later on when things get tough.
A well-crafted written note helps your person feel like you support them, but they don’t have to entertain you or see visitors if they’re not feeling up for it. Instead, it provides a nice, uplifting moment.
First, avoid platitudes at all costs. No one wants to hear that you think everything will turn out ok or that you believe everything happens for a reason. Instead, focus on real words of encouragement.
You can begin by saying that you heard about their situation, and you wanted to let them know that you’re thinking about them. You can also mention where you heard. If you’re too far to offer to do anything for them, there’s no need to offer. If you’re close enough, mention something specific. “I’d love to bring you coffee soon!”
Keep the letter short unless this is your best friend on the planet or your mom. All you need is a few sentences to get your point across and ensure that they know you’re here for them.
Sending a note on a lovely card can go a long way too. The presentation can be a nice touch, but avoid cards that have too much already written on the inside because you have less space to write your own message. Plus, the platitudes are strong in cards like that.
Telling someone who is sick something encouraging can be difficult. You don’t get a do-over, and you don’t often get to plan the situation. You can take a lesson from writing a note and keep things short and to the point.
Again, avoid platitudes, but if you’re in a position, you can begin to offer your assistance in a way that provides the least amount of burden on the person who is sick. If you’re able to pitch in to cook, help clean their house, or take them somewhere, that can be a good start.
Avoid telling long stories about your personal experiences unless they’ve asked for them specifically. This can derail what the situation is about, namely, offering them support. If they’ve opened the door for you to talk about your experiences by explicitly asking about them, then go for it. If not, stay away from that line of conversation.
You can keep things short and straightforward. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. Can I bring you dinner on Wednesday?” goes a long way to giving someone support while removing pressure and ensuring they don’t feel like they have to take charge of the situation.
When It’s a Child
Children can be very understanding of a situation, but they may also be frightened and unsure of what’s going on. If you’re talking to a child who is sick, you should still keep things short and sweet.
Children may not understand exactly what’s happening to them, but they know something is up. You should never try to lie to children to protect them. Instead, acknowledge simply and plainly that they are sick, and that you know it’s hard.
Children may appreciate your presence, even more so than adults, because children are still learning to communicate. Your presence could be even more impactful than trying to talk to a child.
If a child has questions, you should answer simply while keeping in mind age-appropriate information. And if nothing else, playing and talking about something else entirely can go a long way to helping a child cope with sickness.
When an Acquaintance or Colleague is Sick
When you don’t know someone that well, but you find out they’re sick, it can be even harder to know what to say. Here are a few tips for how to handle that situation and still find the right words to say for the occasion.
Writing a note to a colleague can be an awkward thing, but it’s best to keep this one short and simple. If you go in with a few people to all write notes on the same card, that can be even better.
Acknowledge that you’ve heard they’re sick and that you miss seeing them around the office. If you have space, you could extend the same offer to bring food or coffee if it’s appropriate.
Written notes should be brief and to the point, even if you are the only one writing the note. Avoid platitudes just like you would with your own family and close friends and leave the door open for them to contact you if they need to.
You could also offer to keep them informed of what’s happening in the office if you know they plan to return. If their return isn’t assured, you might consider leaving this part out to ensure that they don’t feel pressure to repay or that they’re missing something.
When you go see an acquaintance or colleague, it’s essential to ensure that you aren’t overstaying your welcome. They may not feel up to hosting a constant stream of visitors, so you must gauge your time and take your leave before they get tired.
While you’re there, you could offer your colleague the chance to catch up on what’s going on at the office. If they do plan to return, this could be a mix of business and general happenings. If they aren’t responding, you might offer some office gossip or share some team wins without discussing business.
While you’re there, you should always offer to complete a home task for them or bring something they may need. Think beyond food here. You can offer to go to the grocery store on your way over or to pick up something they need.
Talking to someone about something other than their sickness may be a great way to approach an acquaintance or colleague. Because you don’t know them as well as your friends and family, they may not be as open with you. Instead, redirecting the conversation to something other than their illness may be a welcome change of pace.
When Someone Else’s Loved One Is Sick
When someone you know is caring for someone else or finds out that someone close to them is sick, that is also a time to find the right words. This can be difficult as well because we often forget the caregivers in the equation. Here are a few suggestions for what to say to someone who is caring for someone else or someone who has found out someone they love is sick.
Writing notes to a caregiver of a sick loved one can also be a great way to brighten their day. You can bring a lot of joy by remembering everyone involved in their care and recovery as well. Short notes telling a caregiver that you’re thinking of them are often welcome.
If the caregiver is a full time one, you could offer some of the same things you’d offer a friend who’s sick. Maybe they’d like a coffee every once in a while or for you to drop by the grocery store for them every once in a while.
A note could tell the caregiver that you’d like to bring dinner by some time or offer your phone number for emergency ice cream cravings. Keep it short and sweet with no platitudes or hackneyed sayings.
It can be hard to find the right words for a caregiver. If it’s intense work, you could need some targeted things to say. You should start by acknowledging the situation they’re in without judgment or offering advice.
You can also offer to help using the same targeted language that doesn’t require them to take charge of yet another thing. Calling and saying, “Can I get something from the store for you?” is a great way to offer to help. Another could be offering to take them out if they have the chance.
Many times people want you just to acknowledge that sometimes life doesn’t go the way we plan. It’s a vital part of empathy to be able to sit with someone during times of struggle and not judge or offer advice.
Definitely Don’t Say These Things
No matter how you arrange your words or in what manner you deliver them, there are a few things you should never say to someone who’s sick. Let’s go over a few of those things.
Never Give Medical Advice
All those articles you read about alternative treatments for illnesses? Your friend, colleague, or acquaintance doesn’t want to hear about all those things. While you think you may be helpful in forwarding this advice or seeking out your friend for a conversation about it.
You aren’t a doctor and can’t understand their situation. Even if you are a medical doctor, this person isn’t your patient, and you don’t have the right to force medical advice. It can be really stressful.
Instead, stick to providing help for the sick person and focusing on comfort. They have plenty of medical advice and practitioners with their best interest in mind. If they need someone to advocate for them, they’ll ask. In the meantime, your job is to be there for them without judgment.
Don’t Tell People To Think Positive
Sure, you want someone to stay positive, but if someone is seriously sick, they have a right to have ups and downs. Focusing only on the positive forces them to perform for you. It’s frustrating and not helpful. Plus, there’s no definitive medical evidence that this makes much of a difference.
Remember that optimism isn’t the same thing as “staying positive.” People should be allowed to vent and express frustration without fear of judgment or shame. There’s so much that person is already going through, and it’s best if you don’t take this approach.
If you do want to help someone stay positive, you can take action instead. Offer to take the sick person out if they feel up to it or to come over for a movie and bring dinner. If nothing else, go back up to the written note advice and send them something to brighten their day.
Humans are curious, and sometimes we want to understand why something is happening. That leads us to ask a lot of questions and judging actions when we don’t think they align with healing.
Have you asked your friend a passive-aggressive question about their diet or sleep? Have you asked your friend what they did before the illness happened? These things may help satisfy your curiosity, but you may end up hurting their feelings.
Don’t dig for details while you’re talking to a sick person. If they volunteer things or if you’re close (and thus need to know), that’s different. However, if you’re prying, that can feel terrible for the other person.
Instead, when you want to say something, focus on other things. Ask them how they’re doing at the moment. Ask them about what they’ve been doing with their day. Ask them if they want to do something fun. Offer them some fun office gossip or talk about the latest movie.
Redirecting the conversation from aggressive and invasive questions helps put the other person at ease rather than on the defensive. As much as you want to try to fix the solution, you can’t, which leads us to the next section.
Don’t Try To Fix It
Continuing to suggest things for your sick friend or family member to try to get well isn’t helpful. As we said above, you aren’t their medical professional, and no amount of internet research is going to make you an expert on their condition.
If you are their official advocate in the medical sphere, that’s very different. However, your sick loved one probably already has someone doing that for them. And if it’s a colleague or acquaintance, that definitely isn’t your place.
Instead of telling this person that yoga may solve all their problems, just invite them casually to go with you to try it (and don’t make it about their illness). If you want them to eat healthier, bring healthy food for them to snack on. Again, don’t make it about their illness.
This approach provides a source of comfort or a solution to an immediate problem they may have, i.e., not being able to get out to the grocery store, without turning everything into the never-ending saga of their illness. No matter what you say, you can’t solve their illness for them or find out the root cause. Stick to talking about other things and offering solutions for everyday life.
Building A Better Communication Strategy
You may want to hold on to a few phrases that you know will bring comfort, but always keep in mind that so much of the problem is a lack of customization. If you write the same things to everyone, in the same way, it’s going to ring hollow.
Here’s a quick written formula for finding the inspiration you need to write a quick note:
- Say you’re sorry about the situation
- Offer a personal note or observation
- Provide a straightforward course of action for helping this person
- Sign off
“John, I’m so sorry to hear about your recent accident and hospital visit! We’ll miss your sense of humor and infectious laugh around the office while you’re at home recovering. I’d love to bring you some ready-made meals next week so that you don’t have to worry about cooking. I’ll be in touch later to coordinate what you’d like! All my best!”
With a simple formula like that, you can always come up with the right thing to say without spending hours on it. It also works with phone calls, and to some extent, spoken words of encouragement as well.
Keep in mind that you should stick to things you can fix in practical life and avoid talking about their illness from an advice standpoint. Make sure you know when to take your leave and always follow through on anything you’ve promised.
Say The Right Things
Empathy is always welcome when things happen in life. When you understand that your words matter, it’s easier to come up with ideas to say during those times. You can’t fix their illness, and you can’t find the root of the problem, but you can ensure that this person can count on you when times get tough.
Never underestimate the power of your presence, either. Sometimes, it’s nice to have someone around when the going is tough so that you don’t have to be alone. Just having someone willing to sit with you in your worry and strife is a fantastic resource and can go a long way to support you.
If you know the person well enough, you can always be a presence for them to vent or just sit with while they’re going through these things. If you don’t know them that well, a quick note or a visit to drop by things they need will do more than you could ever imagine. Just a small act of kindness goes a long way.