Three Weeks to Jamboree: Interviewing Family

Interviewing Family (Jamboree countdown) badge Countdown to Jamboree in Burbank, California – Family Interview edition. Rise and shine early Sunday morning, June 13 at Jamboree and learn some good info about interviewing family. I’ll be leading two sessions – one on the skills of an interviewer, the second on the skills of an audio engineer. This week at Family Oral History Using Digital Tools I’ll be discussing different ways to come up with good questions to ask your family member when you sit down to interview him or her.

“I’m going to interview my Uncle Al. What do I ask?”

I get asked this question—a lot. What do you ask someone that you’re going to visit?

I’ll get more into the specifics of strategies of how to come up with questions to ask, but for now, I’ll give you a few tips on attitude.

Your job as an interviewer is to elicit information and stories from the other person. Period. The rest is just details.

All the pointers I’ll be offering are consistent with your job as story eliciter. (not to be confused with Story Elixer, though perhaps you want your questions to act as a kind of story elixer) The job is to elicit stories. I’ll tell you more about different ways to do that.

Your attitude should be one of curiosity and non-judgement. (Being non-judgemental is especially important if you’re interviewing a family member).

Hat tip to Kim Leatherdale whose advice was included in a podcast by Greg Lawrence at Lifetime Memories and Stories. Kim mentions this at the 5:45 mark. Kim Leatherdale is a therapist (specialist in interpersonal relationships. I’ll be sharing another thing or two from her over the next few days). It’s important, when you interview family members, to establish and cultivate trust with the other person.

How do you do that?

The big game plan: Your job is to elicit stories.

When you think of sitting down with your relative, cultivate inside yourself an attitude of curiosity and non-judgement.

You do that by asking open-ended questions. Those are questions with an answer that is story, explanation, expopunding. A closed question is either for very specific infromation, or for the yes or no answer.

Compare these two questions:

  1. When you were a child, did your family take vacations ?
  2. What kind of vacations did your family take when you were a child?

The first question is a closed question. Did you…? leads to Yes I did; no I did not. Informative, but not enlightening.
What kind of…? leaves things very open, giving the person the opportunity to answer any way s/he likes. I can almost hear the answer beginning with “Well, my family used to go to…..” and that leads to “My favorite vacation was….”

Open ended questions begin with these words:

  • Who
  • Where
  • How
  • When
  • What

The next time, I’ll talk about the big exception to the Magic Question Words. I’ll talk about when not to use Why.

Until then, have you had any excellent experiences interviewing family members? What kinds of underlying attitude did you have that contributed to the success of that particular interview?


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 23, 2010 in • Do it: Learn HowGenealogyInterviewing
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