How to Ask the LifeStory Questions

Most people think that asking questions is all about talking. I believe that asking questions in a LifeStory setting is much more about listening than it is about talking. How you ask your LifeStory questions will have a lot more to do with what the interviewee is saying and how they are reacting to the conversation than your agenda involving your questions. So don't be surprised if the following helpful hints about questioning sound a lot like helpful hints on becoming a better listener. Helpful Hint #1 - Watch Your Voice Tone and Body Language When Asking the Questions - Interviewing someone for their LifeStory involves many different tones and moods as you cover different periods of a life. It makes sense that your body language, tone of voice and overall demeanor will change from the questions about what they did for fun as a kid to how they heard and handled the news of the death of a close relative. As you ask about what games they played with their schoolmates during the elementary school years, you should have a smile on your face and a jovial show of body language. But be prepared for a change of that tone if they share that they were left out of fun and games as a child for reasons you didn't anticipate. The only way you will catch this is if you are actively listening.

Helpful Hint #2 - Use Empathy (It's About Them, Not You) - While you might have an agenda of what information you want to gather, the story is about them, not you. Therefore, you must ask the questions with their answers in mind, not how you would answer the question! This is a common mistake that many interviewers make. They expect an answer to have certain words or be delivered in certain way. Because of this, they might ask a question in a superior or patronizing manner. Without naming names, some professional interviewers/talk show hosts make it about themselves. They ask their questions to show off their intelligence or sense of humor. And that might be good for their talk show, but it doesn't work with the "why" I have, or you might have, for the LifeStories we conduct.

Of my favorite professional interviewers is Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio's program, Fresh Air . I believe she is one of the best at having empathy with her interviewees. After I've heard an entire interview of hers, I feel like I really know the interviewee. And it took me years to know anything about Terry! That's the sign of a great interviewer.

Helpful Hint #3 - Don't Look At Your Notes While Asking the Question - As you are asking a question, your interviewee will begin to react to what is being asked...long before you finish asking the question. They might even interrupt you from finishing the question. It is for this reason that you must have your eyes fixed on them when asking your question. That is why I have my questions written on 3" X 5" index cards. I can hold them in the palm of one hand, keep my thumb on the next question to be asked, and quickly (very quickly) glance down at it well before asking it. If I am intently watching the interviewee as I ask the question, I am prepared to change the tone and demeanor of the question (as I am asking it) if their reaction is not one I expect. The best result of that is that the interviewee really believes that you are listening to them, and not just selfishly asking questions.

Helpful Hint #3 - Apologize If You Screw Up - Staying focused and asking questions for long periods of time is difficult. So mistakes and other screw ups will happen. They do for me! The best thing to do is apologize to the interviewee and move on. Never make excuses for mistakes. This just builds a mistrust that you cannot afford to have with your interviewee.

In my next blog post we will begin to cover the equipment and technology used in a LifeStory.