Or even better, am I hearing you?

I’ve long said that hearing is a physical experience while listening is an interactive process through which people communicate emotions and thoughts for the purpose of being understood. I’m going to talk about the impact of mental illness on listening and share a few tips for better listening.

So, how do we listen v. hear? Well there are some standards such as using “I” statements, mirroring (paraphrasing back to one another about what the other has said), and eye contact. These are small changes that can make a big impact in relationships. I’ve come up with an acronym (VALUE – Because we value the words of those we listen to) that works well and I’ll share it here:

  1. Validate:
    1. Assure the person they have the right to feel as they do – even if you disagree.
  2. Affirm:
    1. Reassure them that you believe their feelings have merit – all feelings have merit and should be taken seriously.
  3. Listen:
    1. Stop, hear, take time to process what you are hearing, mirror back to the person what you heard them saying to confirm you are listening accurately.
  4. Understand:
    1. Strive to put their words into your own to help you process what they are sharing.
  5. Empathize:
    1. Realize it may have been hard for them to share their feelings, the situation they are discussing may be very challenging, it might be very positive – the point here is to develop an emotional repertoire between both of you.

So, all of that being said, listening can be very hard for those of us with mental illnesses. We are often so wrapped up in just shutting our own minds up that it can be overly hard for us to focus on what another person is saying.

Our minds are often going 50 miles an hour and we struggle to slow down long enough to listen to our friends, spouses, etc., even when it’s important. This is especially true in mania, when our thoughts are frequently racing and “loud” inside our heads. The thoughts take up all the space and there is quite a bit of noise, preventing easy listening.

We work so hard to take in what people are saying and want to listen and understand, sometimes desperately. What would help? Friends and family who are aware of these difficulties and offer assistance, encouraging those of us who struggle to listen, helping us focus on the conversation. Sometimes it’s as easy as just a brief reminder, “Can I check in to see if you’re hearing what I’ve said?” or “What do you think about what I just shared?”

Is it fair to have to walk on eggshells? No, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the reality for many people with bipolar loved ones. I hope these suggestions have been helpful. What is your go-to trick for better listening?

For more tips on listening check out 10 Tips to Effective and Active Listening Skills


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