Talk Less, Connect More: Seven Tips for Being More Aware and Supportive

I tend to be a chatty person. And I’ve been known to ramble on now and again (and again and again). When my life-parter Kate had cancer and I was her primary caregiver, I became extra aware of these tendencies. I didn’t want to deplete her energy by talking too much or being too animated.

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So I started talking much less when Kate and I spent time alone together. I also talked in a more relaxed tone, even when I was overwhelmed or in a hurry. She never asked me to be more aware in these ways. But I knew it was supportive. And I could tell she was grateful.

At the same time, I watched Kate be as engaged as ever with friends. She was someone who made you feel like you were the only one who mattered, that she was genuinely interested in you and your life. And she was! Even as her body’s symptoms worsened with her cancer, she would inquire about others’ lives and encourage them to share.

But after her visits, she would often say it had been a bit too much for her. She wanted the deep connection, but her energy would also feel drained. Kate preferred, of course, to interact in the same ways she did when her body was totally healthy. I imagine it helped her feel “normal” and not focused on her physical decline.

Ironically, Kate was the one encouraging friends to talk. Yet she didn’t enjoy feeling wiped out later. What are some ways to shift this predicament?

Be more aware in the conversation

As Kate’s caregiver and beloved, I asked her if it was helpful for me to be the one to ask people to talk less when they were around her. She agreed it was. She didn’t want to offend people, and so she wouldn’t make this request on her own. She enjoyed asking friends questions and being conversational, just as she had before her health issues increased.

But often enough, she felt fairly exhausted after listening to people share longer stories or the details of their lives. Not because she wasn’t interested. She cared and that’s why she engaged in the first place! She wanted to have a satisfying conversation and connection.

Over time she preferred visiting in more bite size portions, and she preferred to be around calmer and slower paced energy. Listening and simply being with people seem to be passive acts, but they’re not. Both require energy and presence.

When someone is dealing with or recovering from major health issues, or in a palliative care situation, it’s ultimately up to us to be aware of our part of the conversation. It’s up to us to create a more relaxed energy that supports their wellness.

Tips for talking less and connecting more

I do believe it’s important to engage just as you would if your friend or family member was feeling totally healthy. But in a modified way.

Based on my experiences with my life-partner Kate, my mom, relatives, and friends as they moved toward the final stages of their lives, I offer the following suggestions:

  1. Scale back the details you offer. Yes, most likely your friend or family member will ask how you are, or about other aspects of your life, because they genuinely want to know and feel connected. And at the same time, you can be aware of the level of details you go into. Too many details can be exhausting. Talking at least 50% or perhaps much less than you usually do may be helpful. You can also check in and ask if the person is up for hearing more details by simply saying “Are you up for hearing more about this right now?” and be open to them saying no. And be aware of whether they are someone who tends to be polite and not want to offend anyone, or if they are someone who can be more direct if when they are getting a bit depleted.
  2. Be aware of your own negativity. Being real and honest about your life is essential! And at the same time, if talking about the details of your life includes a lot of negativity – including difficult situations, judgments, complaints, or unnecessary gossip – reconsider how much you share with someone when they are dealing with health issues. Of course your friend or family member wants to know about your life. But at the same time, you can monitor and minimize adding challenging energy to the conversation. Our emotional states are clearly connected to our physical bodies, so less negative storyline tends to be very supportive.
  3. Be aware of how stressful your story is. Sometimes, the details of our lives (or stories about the world at large) aren’t necessarily negative, but they may be stressful. I’d use the “scale back the details” suggestion here. It’s likely the person you’re sharing with won’t tell you they are maxed out, or won’t know they are maxed out until it’s already happened. So you need to gauge that yourself. For example, do you really need to share the play-by-play about what your boss or employee did horribly wrong at work this week? Or the latest disaster that’s happening that you watched on CNN today? Keep in mind that less stress is essential for healing and a healthier immune system, both theirs and yours.
  4. Talk in a calmer voice. And talk in a slower pace if you tend to be a speed talker like me! I can get very excitable and speak quickly and/or loudly, which may be fine in a number of situations, but can be extra draining for people. Also, you may consider paying attention to your volume. When I get passionate or excited about something, I get louder and more hyper. But I don’t always notice. When I’m with people who are extra sensitive, I have more awareness of this. Sometimes I’ve needed to be reminded, which is fine too. But it feels better to catch myself first.
  5. Be spacious and allow for silence. It’s helpful to be spacious with the time you have with someone who is healing or dealing with cancer or illness, even if that means you sit together in the quiet rather than filling the empty space with words. Having silence or long pauses in conversations is very helpful when someone has lower energy levels. If you are someone who tends to jump in quickly, or talk over someone else (I admit, I’m guilty of this), be aware of this habit and do your best to not interrupt or rush the interaction. Even if your friend or family member seems to be lively and feel great, remember that they are likely to get depleted more quickly than usual.
  6. Have shorter visits than you used to have. It’s often helpful and more supportive to see someone more regularly for shorter visits than less often for longer visits. Of course, this will vary depending on the person. Perhaps they want someone present with them for a longer period of time just to have company. Or perhaps it’s too much for them to see you frequently, even if the visits are short. It’s okay to simply ask if they would like to rest for a while or take a break from visiting. It’s supportive to ask this before they even seem tired. Be aware of their needs and don’t take it personally if they need more space or time alone.
  7. Remember that presence is all that matters. There’s no need to make conversation for the sake of making conversation. Simply being present is enough. The less pressure the person feels, the better. It may be an adjustment period for both of you at first, especially if you are both used to being chatty, or if you have a dynamic you are used to in which one of you is much more talkative. Be open to a shift in the balance. Be open to spending time together in ways that are increasingly calmer and more mellow. Your presence is enough.

(A side note: Remember, extraverts aren’t the only ones who are talkative. Many introverts who are quieter during group settings or social scenes are very chatty one-on-one. So I’m not just speaking to my extra gregarious comrades here! All of us can benefit from being more aware of how verbal we are, our tone, volume, stress levels, focus and overall presence).

Be a spacious and supportive ally

There’s a good chance that if the person you want to support feels spacious and less depleted when visiting with you, they will feel more able to see you again soon!

I realize all of this can be quite a balancing act. You want to offer support and spend time with this person you care about. You know that you may not have much more time with them given their wavering energy levels or the progress of their illness or condition.

And yet, there are ways to honor their desire for conversation and connection AND be mindful at the same time.

To me, the key in conversations with people who have limited energy levels is awareness. Keep the connection strong and alive by sharing and listening, but do it with a different balance than you’ve done before. When you are being asked questions about your life, trust that the person really wants to hear from you. And at the same time, self-regulate how much you share and the energy with which you share it.

With more personal awareness about the dynamics in our conversations, you can be supportive allies to your partners, friends and family members who are navigating life changes, health conditions, or terminal illness.

As you talk less, may you find yourself connecting more – and experiencing a true “heart-to-heart.”

This article focused on my awareness of TALKING. Next time, I’ll share what a Rabbi, a Buddhist and a former Evangelical Christian hospice chaplain taught me about LISTENING . . . 

Question: What has your experience been in these situations? Do my tips resonate with you? Do you have tips of your own to share? I’d love to hear from you. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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7 thoughts on “Talk Less, Connect More: Seven Tips for Being More Aware and Supportive

  1. Remembering the calmness and the acceptance with your mother. A closeness, space sharing, time sharing, life going at it’s own pace, rhythm, flowing. From August, when I spent that overnight with her in her hospital room after we heard the diagnosis; we stayed up, the two of us, conversing, sharing, until 3am before we finally fell asleep. To the last days, just looking across the room, eye contact, smoothness, love, lots of love. Soft words. Soft looks. Sharing life moments.

  2. Bayla and I were chatting about this and one thing we came up with about chattiness is that the person ‘visiting’ may actually be nervous and a little uncomfortable about the situation. This may show itself in excess chatter and/or the inability to sit still.

    I know the “listening” portion is coming…in hospice training, we learned to always have HUGE ears and a tiny mouth. (Imagine it drawn for full effect!) This has served me in so many ways over the years.

    I am remembering sweet talks with Kate about the hummingbirds, the GardenShare, clouds and many other intimate topics…like dying…what a gift.

    • Yes, great point! So true that nervousness can come up and not knowing what to say or how to be with the person. Or just around the dying process in general. It’s such a tender place to be since we know our time with someone is limited, and yet we want to meet them where they are, and connect deeply – and meanwhile we are at some level of the letting go process, knowing things are changing on the physical plane.

      And yes, listening is SO huge. I realized I didn’t address it, but that would have been a much longer article! I wanted to speak specifically to someone wanting us to share, and being conversational, yet that we still can be mindful of our end of the dialogue. But yes yes yes, listening is essential!

      And I love that you mention talks with Kate about hummers, the garden, clouds, and even dying. It’s what is present that is so connecting. And so real. Thanks, Raven, for all you offer here and all you offered Kate.


  3. This applies forever and always. Too often there are too many words. Talk less and Connect More is such a great mantra. I love these posts. All of us has experienced the times when we just need to chill out and yet still be with someone. I am finding that the connections are so much deeper. Keep up the good work.

    • Ahhh, so true that these reminders apply to life in general. As I wrote the article, I was reminded of how I can be much more aware in my daily conversations with anyone! Thanks.