You know the caring type: They listen when you talk. They show up when you need them. They remember your birthdays. They’re the ones who hold our families and circles of friends together and make the world a more loving place. We could use more people like them, honestly…so we asked some of our most thoughtful friends for advice on how to be more caring. Here’s what they told us.
Editor’s note: In these tough times when people may be feeling more distant or connecting more digitally than personally, we’ve added some ideas for helping today’s world feel more caring. Look for the updates in gray boxes.
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The ability to empathize—to connect with someone by sharing some of their emotional load—is a quality many caring people share. Empathetic people instinctively feel what others feel, and make thoughtful gestures based on that understanding.
“I start by thinking, ‘What does everybody need today?’ If I can do one gesture, it could make your day a lot better. That’s where I get my greatest joy.”
“Since I was a little kid I’ve felt all of the things. My sister would fall and I would cry. There are people you feel connected with, and I work to keep that relationship alive. If I notice someone’s going through a tough time. I’ll let them know I’m thinking about them, and they don’t have to go through this alone.”
“I use a lot of empathy in my job because I’m an editorial director for Hallmark greetings. I am constantly trying to think about how people connect and how to make people feel special…whether it’s letting someone know you care, giving them a compliment, or even just acknowledging an important date that’s coming up.”
Try this exercise in empathy when someone close to you is going through a difficult or stressful time:
- Think through what you know about their days.
- Can you make parts of it easier by offering to run errands or take on to-dos? Offer to do a specific thing to help.
- Are you aware of times they could particularly use encouragement? Send a text or drop off a card.
- Could they use a sympathetic ear or a soft shoulder at the end of the day? Invite them out to dinner or schedule a phone call.
Being ready and available to show caring in the moment often means finding and making space and time in your house and your life.
“I have a prezzie closet: I don’t wait for a buying occasion like a birthday or holiday, but purchase things for my loved ones right then and there when I see the perfect thing. Then I put it in the present closet for the next occasion—or if it’s too good, for the next time I see them.”
“We keep a stockpile of cards in the house and have random gifts in the basement that we can grab from when neighbors need uplifting or want impromptu host gifts. We also grab items from this stash to place by our guest room beside table when someone comes to town to stay.”
“I want to create better infrastructure: Do a better job of shopping for people all year long—both cards and gifts—and keeping track of them at home better. Something organized instead of a pile of shopping bags in the basement. To me it’s really powerful to make space in my home that reflects my values and my goals.”
These ideas make it easy to show you care at a moment’s notice:
- Use a greeting card organizer. You can start with a stash of basic cards: birthday, thank you, sympathy, congrats, and blanks. Or organize it by month and fill it up as you find cards for different people. Keeping stamps and a favorite pen with your card collection makes it easy to send a message when it’s top of mind, instead of thinking, “Oh, I should have…” Check out our greeting card organizers here.
- Get stuff when you see it. If you see a little something you know someone would love (and it’s in your budget) make a habit of picking it up. Add a sticky note with a name and the thought behind it before you put it on a shelf for future gifting. Maybe even keep notes about pre-purchased gifts on your calendar, in a spreadsheet, or on a special page in your planner.
- Add an extra something. Pick up an extra pastry when you stop for coffee on the way to work. When you buy a cute desk accessory or fabulous lipstick, get one for your sister or best friend. If you spot candles or plants or bottles of wine on sale, grab a few to keep for hostess gifts or day-brighteners.
Just about every considerate person we talked to—even the ones who rely on above-average memories—uses some sort of organizing tool to keep track of opportunities to be kind, thoughtful, and caring.
“Keeping an updated contact list is very important. When I meet someone new, I’ll ask for their address. I have updated contacts in my phone and I have all Apple products, so they get passed on to every device.”
“I’m a list maker. I have a pocket calendar, an address book, and a big purse.”
“I’m still a believer in the old-fashioned address book.”
“I maintain a spreadsheet with everyone’s contact information, birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones. At the beginning of the year, I add everybody’s stuff to my calendar.”
“I’ve got my very good memory…and Facebook events/birthday reminders…and my iPhone reminders list (usually created with voice to text)…and my ever-long and ongoing text thread with my group of neighbors.”
Here are some tools to make your caring efforts more organized:
- Put people in your planner. Just as you schedule meetings and errands, schedule time to connect. Add check-ins to your to-do list. Jot down loved one’s events—important meetings, doctor visits, and occasions—so you can check in afterwards. See our selection of planners here.
- Go digital. Make the most of the integrated contact list, built-in calendar, reminders, and notes in your phone or on your computer so important information flows from one device to another and stays updated everywhere.
- Share information. Use the cloud to swap dates, addresses, and other important information with family members. For example, set up documents on Google Drive for your whole family to add to and edit.
- Keep it old school. There’s something extra-personal about a paper address book with penciled-in addresses, or an index card file with handwritten notes, or a perpetual birthday calendar you can add to year after year.
Add “check-ins” to your daily routine. Pick a specific time each day to make calls or write texts, emails or cards. Set a timer for 15 minutes or set a goal for how many people you want to connect with daily.
Social media and all of the relatively new ways to communicate have their downsides and detractors. But for caring folks, they make it easier to see what’s happening in loved ones lives.
“I have eight nieces and nephews (four of them are also married, so I include their spouses) that I try to text each one a couple of times a week to stay connected. I usually know what they have going on for the week and use that to continue to stay connected. How was the big meeting? How did the appointment go? Saw your new haircut…really cute. Stuff like that.”
“It’s about recognizing what’s going on. And reaching out in the moments where it’s like ‘I don’t know what to say or do but I’m here for you.’”
“This year I have tried direct, private, personal communication. It has felt refreshingly new and honest in the age of social media where my exchanges with friends might be a simple tagging, a quick like, a comment here, an emoji there. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those quick and frequent touch points. But ever so often someone will post something and I’ll think to myself ‘I wonder what’s going on?’ Only recently have I remembered that oh, yeah—I can just ask people. So I’ve been doing that: sending private Facebook messages or texts if I have someone’s number. Never prying kind of inquiries—sometimes just comments like ‘Saw your post and it made me think of you—I hope you are doing okay.’ Sometimes questions that I hope will get past the surface level exchanges on social media: ‘Saw your post—what are you presenting at the conference?’ Or if it’s someone I know well I’ll just ask ‘are you okay?’”
Use these tips for showing what’s happening to them matters to you, too:
- Ask, “How are you?” and wait for the answer. So many questions are conversational clichés we ask out of habit. Dig a deeper with a little extra patience and some follow-up questions.
- Be quiet. Let go of the urge to comment on every observation or fix every problem. Smile and encourage your friend to go on without interruption, other than an encouraging “what happened next?” or “how did that make you feel?”
- Stay present. Leave your phone in your pocket or purse. Close your laptop. Mute your TV. Do whatever it takes to keep your focus on the human being you want to connect with.
- Take notice. There’s a lot of static in the messages we get from each other every day, and sorting through it to get to what’s important takes some effort. Listen for the details and—sometimes—read between the lines.
These days offer many reasons for our older friends and family members to stick close to home. One gift of time you can provide at a distance is a technology lesson. A phone tutorial on using FaceTime or Skype demystifies the process and opens up great paths of communication. Follow up with written instructions in your words via text or email. Or just communicate the way they might prefer: calls, cards, postcards or letters.
Many of the caring people we interviewed have jobs that reinforce—or take advantage of—their thoughtful habits. One common habit: They make notes about important stuff.
“I try to write things down when someone tells me about an important event coming up. Then I use that to connect with them after the event has occurred.”
“I was having a casual conversation and a friend mentioned it was the anniversary of him coming out—I put that on my calendar and text him every year.”
“I add notes to each person’s contact information in my phone. Like a weirdo. For example— under my boyfriend’s contact information it says in the notes section: Lagavulin 16, WWE, sensory deprivation tank, cheesecake, red/blue/green, Star Wars (especially Boba Fett and Yoda), and size 13 shoes. Why? Because I’m a crazy person but also because I have a terrible memory.”
A few places to keep your notes:
- Your planner: Add calendar events, to-dos, and tasks.
- Contact files: Include important milestones, special occasions, favorites, sizes, and hobbies.
- Notes files and journals: Use digital note keepers or a paper journal to jot down details you want to remember.
- Sticky notes: On your mirror, or inside a medicine cabinet, or around the edges of your monitor, or on the front door.
We’re busy. We’re all just so busy. So how do you fit caring in between meetings and activities and work and housekeeping and all your must-dos every day?
“I am super passionate about building community in my neighborhood—it’s so sad to me when people say that they don’t know their neighbors. People remark about how ‘lucky’ we are to live in a neighborhood that is as caring, connected, and fun as ours, but luck is only part of it. We’ve done a lot to invest in our neighborhood by showing small acts of caring, like making meals for people who have had a baby or have been in the hospital, taking treats door-to-door at the holidays, helping neighbors trim trees or build gardens, or inviting neighbors into our home for any and all occasions—or for no reason at all. It doesn’t have to be big to make a big impact.”
“I’m always reminding myself to be present. If someone is lost in the building I’ll take a minute to show them the way. I have a decision tree in my head: Can I stop what I’m doing to do something for someone else?”
Time and space that once were our own now aren’t. We’re busy with work and immediate family in ways that are very different than they were. So how do we fit caring into this new normal of ours?
Need to make time for others? Try these ideas:
- Block some space on your calendar. When you know someone might need you, look for a few hours you can free up to chat or add a reminder to your shopping list to check in for items they might need. Prioritize relationships that need a little extra love by scheduling regular weekly or monthly get-togethers. Leave extra time around visits to an older family member so you can share stories without rushing.
- Read this post for 10 more ways to make time for relationships.
Life can feel very compressed as our homes accommodate the work of one or more jobs, the expanded roles of teaching our children, the feeding and nurturing and entertaining of each member of the household—all in a space that anyone rarely leaves. So many of those we care about are facing just such challenges. Even a quick text of “You good?” can open a door to a caring conversation carried in ways that fits into the small gaps in our days and still feels great.
Just as being empathetic means being vulnerable enough to feel another person’s pain, being caring can mean taking risks: Will your nice gesture land the way you hope? Will your concern be accepted? Will the target of your thoughtfulness appreciate you? Will your effort be reciprocated? Will your caring really matter?
“I have a scary-good memory and I’m a little invasive. I’m really interested in other people’s lives.”
“This probably isn’t revolutionary to anyone else, but I have to get past the barrier I have of feeling like I’m being intrusive. But usually when I do it gets me to a stronger connection.”
“I’m a reporter, and it’s all about listening and following up. A reporter doesn’t know everything—we just have to know how to find it. I’m not afraid to ask anybody anything.”
“When you know who you are and feel secure in who you are, it makes it easier to reach out.”
Even if the nice things you do and the selfless energy you put into the world don’t always make the difference you’d hoped, know that what you’re doing is important. The relationships you’re in, and your little corner of the world, will be stronger and better because you care.
These days require a lot of us—physically, spiritually and emotionally. Caring also includes knowing when to care for ourselves. If your time or situation isn’t allowing for the level of caring you would like to show to others, now is not the time to beat yourself up for that; caring always finds a way. When you’re able to make even a small show of caring, while the effort may be greater than ever, chances are that what you do will matter more than ever, too.