> Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

It seems like I am so often having conversations with clients or friends that include answering the question, “What should I say?” or, “How do make him/her understand…?”

Are the words right on the tip of your tongue? Maybe. Maybe not.

Like when you want someone to know how important they are to you, but you don’t want it to sound like a line from a movie they probably saw. Or, when someone has done something for you and a simple thank you doesn’t even begin to describe how much you appreciate them. Or, when you know someone you care about is suffering and you aren’t even sure if there are any words that would express what you want to say. If you or a family member is living with a chronic condition, you know all about these moments.

We try, often with the best of intentions. But most of us aren’t poets. We’re just people who want to express ourselves to the people we love, and we sometimes fall short.

Going beyond words

Let me start out by reassuring you that if you have those times when you aren’t sure of what to say, or if there are even words to say it, you are not alone. I’m right there with you.

But let’s look at our vocabularies from another angle. Has anyone ever said something to you that just didn’t feel sincere? You weren’t sure why, but it just felt like the words and the facial expression—or the actions—didn’t quite match? When something is hard to express, trying to say it over the telephone or in a text message—with nothing but words—can feel like only half the message is being conveyed. Even the most well-chosen words aren’t always enough when the other senses aren’t engaged.

Simple gestures we may not even be aware of can make our communication with each other much more meaningful. So meaningful, in fact, that they can convey a whole lot when we’re out of words.

Here are a few gestures to wordlessly fill in the gap between your feelings and your vocabulary:

A smile. A smile says so much: you mean well, you care, you have positive intentions. A smile also shows you are willing to be vulnerable, to make a move in a positive direction even if the other person isn’t.

A pat on the arm. This is a simple reminder to someone that you understand, you appreciate, and are there for them.

Something to eat. I don’t necessarily mean a double hot fudge sundae. Just taking the time to prepare and serve some healthy food can be a way of showing love.

A listening ear. I mean, REALLY listen. And not just long enough to figure out what you want to say next. Take in the words you’re hearing, reflect on them, ask questions if you don’t understand. In my mind, there is no greater way to honor another person than by listening to them (that’s why I do it for a living).

Eye contact. Eye contact shows you’re present, focused, and conveys concern. And no, one eye on them and the other eye on your smartphone doesn’t count.

A courtesy. Like holding the door, letting the other person dig into a meal first, or doing a chore before they have a chance to. Basically, being willing to put someone you love before yourself. Give it a try. Watch them lower their defenses and open up.

No response. Sometimes the most caring thing you can do is not to respond. Like when the other person says or does something that pushes your button. Not needing to be right all the time. If you stop dancing when the same old music starts, you might both find a way to change your tune.

More show and less tell. Use simple gestures to show how you feel. Let the words take care of themselves.

More from Dr. Gary:
Chronic Communication Tips: Using Healing Words
Chronic Communication at Home: When You Don't Know What to Say
Chronic Communication: Encourage Family to Share Their Feelings