What I’ve Learned About Getting “Truthful” Interviews.

old womanAmong personal historians the topic of honesty in interviews is a recurring topic. We want to ensure that our interviews illuminate the depth of a person’s life and not simply skim across the surface. Questions arise about how far we should go to uncover the “truth” of a life lived.

I’ve done hundreds of interviews in my twenty-five years as a documentary filmmaker and personal historian. The interview subjects have included political leaders,  prominent artists,  historians, the dying, and the elderly.

This is what I’ve learned:

  1. People will tell me only what they are prepared to tell me. No amount of clever or challenging questioning will change that fact. And I respect my  client’s wishes.
  2. The interview is not about me and my agenda. My focus is always  on my client and his or her needs.
  3. I must have the courage to ask  reflective and sometimes difficult questions. We owe it to our clients to raise questions that no one else may ask. “What have been the regrets in your life?” or “What are your fears around dying?” However, going back to my first point, I’m aware that asking the questions doesn’t always elicit a full response.
  4. I am not a therapist. My role is to help a person tell their story,  not to make them better. I’m aware though that through the process of interviewing healing can occur for a client.
  5. Clients will sometimes reveal information to me that they have told no one. Having revealed this information they may not want it preserved in print or video for the whole world to know and may ask that it be deleted.
  6. The degree to which people confide in me is directly proportional to the trust I’m able to establish. This means that in my initial interviews I cover soft, easy topics  like happy childhood memories or descriptions of a childhood home. Once the client and I have been together for a number of sessions, then I raise some of the more challenging questions.
  7. I’m not an investigative journalist. Getting at the truth is critical for an investigative journalist. Compassion can be an impediment to their work. I’m a personal historian and  my need for honesty is tempered by compassion for my client.

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10 Responses to What I’ve Learned About Getting “Truthful” Interviews.

  1. Will you be at the APH conference next week? Hope so. I want to meet you and thank you in person for your wonderful posts. As a beginning personal historian, you have taught me so much for which I am very grateful.

    • @Diane Gray. Thank you so much for your very kind and encouraging words. I will not be able to attend this year’s conference so I’m afraid we won’t have an opportunity to meet. I will be at next year’s so maybe I’ll see you then.

      If you have any ideas for future posts please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll do my best to try to accommodate your request.

      Thanks again. It’s always nice to hear from my colleagues.

  2. Do you already know where it will be held next year?

  3. @Diane Gray. Yes I do but I’ve been sworn to secrecy! You’ll find out at this year’s conference.

  4. Dan,
    This was such a good and valuable posting. As a personal historian, I have run into these topics during my interviews. Sometimes during the interview process, we learn more than we really wanted to hear from the client. It surely takes a lot of wisdom to get through those moments.
    Thanks for the posting.

  5. Dan,

    As usual, you provide food for thought and an other set of excellent tips that we need to keep in mind when interviewing. Please let me thank you for your typical succinctness, directness, spare words, and great value. Having encountered the reluctant interviewee myself many times, your reminders about not pushing like investigative journalists were spot-on. (And may I say it was great to finally meet you in Victoria.) As ever, I’m a fan …
    Francie King

  6. Dear Dan,

    What a pleasure to finally meet you at the most recent APH conference! And to enjoy a bit of your beautiful island! I very much appreciated your workshop and find that I’m very much in agreement with you in many aspects of this work.

    Thanks for posting this again since I missed it the first time around. This is a keeper and as usual, I totally agree with you. Everything we do is about the client, not about us! Thanks for being a voice of reason is a sometimes crazy world.


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