Four Great Questions to Ask in a Family History Interview
By: Ryan Brown
You’ve worked hard convincing Aunt Ethel to sit down in front of your voice recorder or your video camera but now what?
If you’re like a lot of people, you worry more about the nuts and bolts of the interview than what you’ll say. I get it. Finding a time when you and your relative’s schedules are free, getting your tech-savvy son or nephew to help you with your equipment, and worrying about how your voice will sound on the recording occupy a lot of your thoughts.
So when it comes to sitting down and interviewing your family member, you might have forgotten about one of the most important parts–the questions you’re going to ask.
Have no fear. Here are four great questions you can ask during your family history interview to bring out personality and great stories.
1. What are some things that make your life happy?
People are far more willing to talk about their feelings if they can connect them to some thing or story. If you simply ask, “What makes you happy in life?” your relative might balk and shy away.
So try and have them focus on specifics that bring them happiness. It might be children, work experiences, travel destinations, religious or community service opportunities, or a host of others.
2. How did that feel?
Hang on, that’s not a real question!
Au contraire, my friend. “How did that feel?” is one of the greatest questions you can ask in a personal history interview.
Most people are more focused on facts than feelings. But family histories come alive when facts are coupled with emotion. The best way to work both facts and emotions together is to ask a simple follow-up question to a factual story or account. “How did that feel?” or “How did that make you feel?” can move your questions from superficial to supernal.
3. Has your life been different from what you imagined?
Having a relative reflect back on their life can be one of the most interesting and powerful moments of a family history interview.
Asking your relative to compare the direction that their life took, as compared to where they thought it was going, humanizes and normalizes them. Everyone has doubts about what path they should take in life. It can be an extraordinary experience to hear how an older relative managed those doubts and ended up where they are.
4. What are your philosophies about life?
This is my catch-all question when an interview is winding down but I feel like there’s more I want to capture and understand about the person I’m interviewing.
Asking someone about their philosophies can lead to your relative talking about their religious beliefs, their political beliefs, lessons they’ve learned through the “hard knocks” of life, or simply things that they want their children or friends to remember.
Don’t be afraid to pause after this or any other question. Give your relative some time to think. Chances are, if you’re patient, what they come up with after a few moments of reflection will be better than you thought.