My Gram used to say that people first seek to be understood and the older I get the more I realize the wisdom of those words.
To me, hearing and listening are two different things. Hearing is something done automatically as part of our body’s sensory integration system. In fact the New York Times published a full article on the issue. I can be hearing you while not listening to a word you say. Let me say, this doesn’t win me any favors. People want to be *listened* to. They want to feel validated and assured that their feelings are real and have merit. This is especially true of people with bipolar.
So how can you help someone with this issue? Speak clearly and in a calm voice, share that you are wanting to hear their feelings and to feel heard yourself, focus on your loved one while talking, look them in the eye so they can see your facial expressions and reach out and make physical contact if it’s appropriate to the situation, reassure them that you are just trying to have clear communication, ask the person with bipolar to repeat back to you what they have listened to and make sure it’s what you are trying to share. If it’s not, then ask if it’s okay to share again, perhaps expressing that you don’t yet understand them or feel heard yourself. Be clear that this is what you are seeking and that mirroring (repeating in a summary fashion what you just thought you heard) helps both of you feel that.
It’s okay to be challenged when trying to have clear communication with someone who has bipolar. It’s not uncommon for us to struggle with this and many people with bipolar are open about their challenges in this area. If your friend or family member doesn’t want to be “pinned down” by their diagnosis when it comes to talking it’s okay to not mention that you are trying this approach because of their bipolar but merely because you really want to make sure your feelings come across fully and are understood. Share that it’s important to your relationship with this person that you are both clear about what’s going on.
It’s normal to want to feel heard and understood so keep trying until you both do. It may take a few (or several) tries but keep making the effort. Remember that we want this for you and us also despite our difficulties in getting there. We will appreciate you trying even if we don’t or aren’t able to say so. Trust me.