Interviewing Family: Why not Why?

image What’s wrong with “Why?” In the previous post, I wrote about asking open-ended questions, that is, questions that would elicit a lengthy story or explanation. Something more than a yes or no answer. “Why?” is a question designed to get a lengthy reply. So why don’t I say to use “why?”

The answer is not “Because I said so.” But there’s something about that famous familial exchange (“Why?” “Because I said so!”) that gets at the heart of Why Not Why.

Remember the two parts of attitude I mentioned yesterday?

  1. Be Curious.
  2. Be Non-Judgmental.

Asking a question using the word “Why?” might sound judgemental.

Especially if you’re family.

When a family member asks another family member a question that begins with Why?, it might put the second person on the defensive in the same way as “Why didn’t you take out the trash?”

You want to elicit information and stories, not put the person on the spot.

(I’m indebted to Kim Leatherdale’s comments on the Lifetime Memories and Stories podcast for making this point explicit.)

image I’ve gotten lots of insight on communication inside families from socio-linguist Deborah Tannen’s book I Only Say This Because I Love You Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adults. Communication inside families have a tension between what Deborah Tannen refers to as “our simultaneous but conflicting desires for connection and control” (p. 11) We talk to connect and to share our connection with a family member. But we also use language to control the other person. It goes way back to relationships that are very dominant and hierarchical and controlling. After all, what’s more dominant to a young child than a parent?

She continues,

Control and connection are intertwined, often conflicting forces that thread through everything said in a family. These dual forces explain the double meaning of caring and criticizing. Giving advice, suggesting changes, and making observations are signs of caring when looked at through the lens of connection. But looked at through the lens of control, they are put-downs, interfering with our desire to manage our own lives and actions, telling us to do things differently than we choose to do them. That’s why caring and criticizing are tied up like a knot. [p. 13, paperback edition]

Asking a question that begins with Why inserts itself into the nexus of the caring-criticizing conflict. Find a way to avoid getting entangled in the ambiguities of connection-control and caring-criticism.

When you’re engaged in eliciting stories, avoid Why…?.

How to ask a Why? question differently

Instead of asking, say, Why did you change jobs? ask the question this way:

What was your thinking at the time?
What was going on when you decided to change jobs?

The two What was…? options sound friendlier and non-threatening.

image If you want to hear a master interviewer whose style is very open and curious and nonjudgemental, I heartily recommend listening to Dick Gordon, the radio host of the public radio program The Story. He’s a master at the curious and nonjudgemental non-Why? question that gets at the reason why. (Plus, the stories on his show are pretty danged interesting, too)

So when you sit down to interview family, think of ways to make your questions 100% curious and 0% intimidating. There are other ways to get at Why without asking why.

Next time…. a way to think about a person’s life to come up with a whole host of questions.

Until then—have you tried to ask a question—a simple basic question—and had your intentions misunderstood? What happened? Describe it in the comments.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 24, 2010 in • GenealogyInterviewing
1 CommentsPermalink

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This is good advice, and very timely for me.  We’ll be traveling around this summer visiting older relatives, and this will help us I’m sure!  Thanks!

Angela  on 05/31  at  02:16 AM

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