Using good communication skills

There are constructive ways of communicating with each other about grievances that are less likely to come across as hostile or critical. These skills take practice and time to learn. They are discussed below including:

  • Active listening
  • Making positive requests for change
  • Calmly expressing your feelings about the person’s behavior
  • Problem solving together
  • Reaching a compromise together
  • Communicating about positive things

Active listening1, 2

People seldom take time to really listen to each other’s point of view. Difficulties and conflict are much easier to sort out once people understand where the other person is coming from. To actively listen you need to:

  • Look at the person who is talking.
  • Focus attention on what they are saying.
  • Acknowledge what you hear by nodding, verbally indicating that you have heard or asking the person to continue.
  • Ask for clarification to check that you have understood their viewpoint.
  • Without adding personal opinions or judgments, summarize what you have heard to check with the person if you have understood their viewpoint.

Making positive requests for change1, 2

Using a positive request for change can be useful if there is a specific behavior that you would like to see the person change (e.g. If your partner has been very busy at work: “I would like you to let me know if you need me to fetch the children from school today? This will make it easier for you knowing you don’t have to rush. The children will not be left waiting at school when everyone else has gone home and I will be able to plan things so that I can fetch them.”)

This differs from criticism as it is not about what the other person has done wrong. Instead, it is about what you would like to see change. To make a positive request:

  • Look at the person.
  • Use ‘I’ statements. For example “I would like your help with …” “It would mean a lot to me if you would do…
  • Tell them specifically what you would like them to do without asking for many things at once.
  • Have a calm manner that is not apologetic, critical, demanding or commanding.
  • Tell them how you think this could benefit yourself and where possible, the other person.

Calmly expressing your feelings about the person’s behaviour1, 2

Another possibility when expressing your grievances to the person is to calmly express your feelings about the person’s behavior. To use this technique you need to:

  • Address the specific behavior that is bothering you rather than globally blaming the person.
  • Look at the person and speak firmly (not apologetically or loudly).
  • Tell the person exactly what they did that upset you and how that made you feel using “ I” statements (e.g. “I am angry as you fetched the children from school over an hour late for the third time this week, although I asked you to let me know if I could help out with lifts.”).
  • Suggest what the person can do in the future to prevent this from happening again (e.g. “Let’s discuss how we can prevent this from happening again. Would it be easier if we arrange that I fetched them from school for a while, just until you are over your busy patch at work? Alternatively, should we arrange for them to go to aftercare so that you can fetch them when you are ready?”).

Problem solving together

If someone does not agree to your positive request or to trying to prevent a certain behavior in the future, another option is to invite them to use problem solving steps to try to sort out this difficulty together (see using problem solving steps). It may be helpful to consult a therapist who is experienced in dealing with bipolar disorder and relationship difficulties if it is hard to sort out problems.

Reaching a compromise together

Sometimes conflict can develop into a competition about who can win the argument. Having a winner can make the competition fiercer the next time. What can help to resolve conflict is when both people stand back and decide to work on resolving the conflict together. You may need to invite the person to work things out with you. To find a workable compromise consider the following:

  1. Both you and the person make independent lists of ways that suit you to sort out the problem. Discuss these options with the person without trying to win the argument. Rather aim to find something that is reasonably fair to both of you.
  2. If the options are not acceptable, you or the person can ask for a counterproposal until you both find something to agree on.
  3. If it is hard to find a solution that is acceptable to both of you, ask or suggest
    • “What would you need from me to be able to do this my way?”
    • “My way this time your way next time”
    • “Lets meet half way”
    • “If you do…for me, I’ll do…for you”
    • “My way when I am doing it and your way when you are”
  4. If compromise is not possible you may need to agree to differ. Even people in a good relationship sometimes agree to differ about certain issues. However, if the issue is very important to you and it has not been resolved in a way you think is acceptable, you may need to consider your options and how to move forward.

Communicating about positive things

While it is important to communicate our concerns when someone does something we do not like, it is also important to communicate our appreciation when they do something we like. People are also more likely to continue doing the things that give them positive feedback.

Spending a bit of time doing things together that you and the person both enjoy can strengthen the relationship. Sharing positive experiences can make people keener to sort out stressful interactions and conflict.

For more information on some of these communication skills, we recommend a book by David MiklowitzThe bipolar disorder survival guide’ (see reference below).


  1. Miklowitz DJ. The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide. New York: The Guilford Press; 2003.
  2. Miklowitz DJ. Bipolar Disorder. A Family Focused Treatment Approach. New York: The Guilford Press; 2008.