Category Archives: Questions

Are You Asking the Courageous Questions?

“The key point [of my interviews] was empathy because everybody in their lives is really waiting for people to ask them questions, so that they can be truthful about who they are and how they became what they are.”

Marc Pachter , Cultural Historian

Marc Pachter founded  Living Self-Portraits at the Smithsonian and was its master interviewer.  In his TED talk below he shares the challenges of getting a good interview.

…if all you’re going to get from the interviewee is their public self, there’s no point in it. It’s pre-programmed. It’s infomercial, and we all have infomercials about our lives. We know the great lines, we know the great moments, we know what we’re not going to share, …

Marc recounts several interviews and how he cut below the surface conversation to have his subjects reveal the truth of their lives.

Marc’s talk reminds  me of the advice I give to those I train for life story interviewing.  I tell my students they need to ask the “courageous  questions”. These are the questions that people have been waiting to be asked all of their lives. It requires courage on both sides. The interviewer must be confident enough to raise the questions. The interviewee must be unafraid to answer them.

Our work as personal historians, unlike  Marc Pachter’s,  seldom involves the famous. But the need to go beyond the pre-programmed responses is the same. How do we do that in a way that’s both incisive and empathetic? Here are some clues.

trust your intuition

Intuition is that ability of knowing without any rational explanation – a kind of sixth sense.  I’ve talked about this to some degree in a previous article, How to Listen with Your Eyes.

When we’re engaged in an interview, it’s not just the words we’re listening to but also the subtext. It’s the eyes that give us clues to what’s behind the words. Our subject may express happiness and contentment but the eyes are sad. We may hear kindness and openness  but the eyes are angry and narrowed.  If we’re doing our job well, we need to check out this dissonance with our interviewee. By listening with our eyes we unearth a richer more authentic story.

Trusting your intuition and blurting it out doesn’t mean that it’s always right. And that’s okay. People will set you straight if you’ve missed the mark.

As a rule, I generally preface my hunches with something like, “I have this feeling and I might be totally off base but I’d like to check it out…” [followed by the courageous question.]

With time and practice we can begin to trust our intuition and put it at the service of our clients.

Acknowledge the elephant

An elephant in the room can crush the intimacy from an interview. To help people express themselves and as Pachter says  “to feel what they … [want] to say and to be an agent of their self-revelation” we need to be fearless in acknowledging the elephant.

The caveat is that we must always be clear on our intent. We are the means through which people can speak unburdened. Our intent is not to embarrass, intimidate, or expose the interviewee.

For example, in my work I’ve found  that most of those at the end of life welcome an opportunity to talk about their fears and hopes. But I also know that  it’s not uncommon for friends and family of terminally-ill patients to avoid the subject of death altogether. While it’s perfectly understandable, such silence can leave the dying feeling even more isolated.

be curious

Curiosity is one of the key tools in an interviewer’s toolkit. It’s both playful and disarming.  The question begins  with “I wonder or I’m curious…” and invites an exploration between you and the interviewee.

Questions that are asked out of curiosity usually lead to responses that are authentic and deep.

For example,  after listening to your interviewee go on and on about their terrible childhood you might ask, “You’ve painted such a bleak picture of your childhood, I was wondering what were some of the good things that you can recall?”

Such a question stops the interviewee from the pre-programmed, infomercial described by Marc Pachter and gives the person an opportunity to dig deeper and uncover some bright spots.


As personal historians we owe it to our clients to ask the courageous questions. One’s life story is more than a sterile recitation of dates, names, places, and events. Ultimately it’s about the complexity and richness of a soul’s journey. Courageous questions unlock this richness and give heart and substance to a personal history.

Photo by Pulpolux

Thanks to my APH colleague Pat McNees of Writers and Editors for alerting me to Marc Pachter’s TED talk.

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Come to Your Senses and Unlock Childhood Memories.

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains.

                               ~Diane Ackerman

How much do we remember from our childhood? This is one of the questions examined recently by Canadian research scientists.

I’ve just finished reading Blanks for the Memories  which highlights aspects of the research originally published in the journal Child Development.

Neuroscientists believe that there are different kinds of memories, stored in many different neural circuits. “We can’t go to a particular spot in the brain to see where our third birthday party is stored,” says Dr. Hudson….

Scientists think the brain’s prefrontal cortex processes experiences, using sensory input from the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, sorts them into categories, and tags the various memory fragments with specific associations (smells of home, friends from camp, bugs, a pet, for example).

Reading this made me realize how important the senses are to unlocking childhood memories. I must admit I could do a better job of incorporating sensory questions into my interviews. To get me pointed in the right direction, I’ve written a few sample “sensory” questions below.

I tested some out on my mother and she had great fun. It turns out that a taste she strongly associates with her childhood is jelly beans. Her mother would carefully count out five each for her and her two siblings. Today this may not sound like much but during The Depression jelly beans were a real treat!

How much do you incorporate sense-related questions into your interviews? Do you have a favorite “sensory” question?


  • What do you remember most about your mother’s appearance?
  • Paint a picture for me of where you lived – the weather, terrain.


  • What sounds do you associate with your childhood? What memories do they evoke?
  • What piece of music  do you remember from your childhood?


  • What was your favorite food when you were a child?
  • What tastes do you associate with your childhood?


  • What do you recall were things you loved to touch as a child,?
  • What do you remember liking to run your hands over or through?


  • What are some of the pleasant smells  you associate with your childhood? What memories do they bring back?
  • What smells from your childhood weren’t pleasant? What memories do they evoke?

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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From the Archives: How to Interview a “Challenging” Subject.

How to Interview A "Challenging" Subject. I’ve always found it relatively easy to interview someone who is outgoing and an extrovert. The challenge is  interviewing someone who is more withdrawn and tends to respond with one word or one sentence answers. It’s like pulling teeth to get their story. If it’s  an older person who is also hard of hearing and has poor vision, it can make the interview that much more difficult. So how do you interview a challenging subject? Here’s what I’ve learned … Read More

The #1 Secret to Creating an Engaging Video Life Story.

What makes a video biography memorable?  Is it the person being interviewed? Or is it the inclusion of archival photos and movies? Or could it be the clever use of audio and visual effects? All of these are significant but the most important factor – the #1 secret to a first rate video biography is good story telling.

Basically your video biography needs to have the same narrative structure  that goes into creating a good feature film – pacing, suspense, and character development.  It’s true that your production isn’t for broadcast and will only be seen by your client’s  family and friends. But that’s no excuse to make it boring!

Here are a few ways you can improve your story telling.

Launch your story with A compelling opening.

And I don’t mean flashy effects. That’s window dressing. A good feature film captivates you in the first few minutes of the story. Edit a clip from the main interview that establishes your subject’s character. It might be something that’s funny, heavy with portent, sad, or revealing.  Cut that into your opening. Later decide what visuals (e.g family photos, home movies, etc.) you might want to accompany this opening segment.

Keep the story moving.

It’s not enough to string together the chronology of a life.  You need to use  techniques that will give the narrative energy and create momentum. One  approach is  to shift the emotional tone. For example, after your subject has recounted a sad story fade to black and then come up on an account that’s happy. Or if your subject has been railing at the world, jump to a more tender story. Trust me it works.

Another way to keep the story moving is to create a jump in time. This can improve your storytelling immeasurably by eliminating material that’s lackluster. For example, the story of a woman who struggles to get an education during the Depression and eventually goes on to university is riveting. But her university years are less interesting. What’s really intriguing is how she gets her first job after graduating. So find a clip from her interview that can be used to jump directly to her first job. It might be something she says like, ” I had great fun at university but it was my first job that really tested me.”

Create suspense.

Suspense is the principal engine that  drives your story. Suspense is created by your audience asking and getting answers to such basic questions as, “What is the subject’s quest?  How does the subject resolve the challenges along the way? Will the subject reach a goal?  What happens when the dream is achieved or not achieved?”

Here’s the bad news. Unless you’ve asked these questions in your interviews you’ll likely have little to help you create suspense.

Keep your editing tight.

As  Sheila Curran Bernard, an  an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer, said, “In documentary, as in drama, you have to collapse real time into its essence.” Believe me, not everything your subject says is worth including in your video. Eliminate anything that doesn’t  support  your main story. For example, an anecdote about “Aunt Flo” might be interesting but unless it somehow illuminates some facet of your main subject, Aunt Flo should go! To give you some perspective on this, I shoot an average of six to seven hours of interview for a one-hour video biography.

Provide A Good Closing.

Your ending should provide a satisfying resolution to the central journey. It must be short and not introduce any new story lines.  The final scene can be in the form of a simple summary statement from your subject. Or it can be some end cards that bring the story up-to-date. Whatever you choose, don’t make the mistake of creating multiple endings.

Photo by Steev Hise

The 50 Best Life Story Questions.

I know it’s presumptuous for me to claim these are the “best”.  But what the heck, they’re not shabby. ;-)

In a previous article I suggested you might want to write “50 best life story questions”.  I explained these could be a token of appreciation for a potential client that you lost. If you haven’t yet written your “50 best”,  take a look at my list and feel free to use any of them. Be my guest!

  1. If you could do one thing over in your life, what would it be?
  2. What makes  you happy?
  3. Looking back on your life, what do you regret?
  4. What do you believe to be true?
  5. What is the secret to a happy life?
  6. What do you believe happens to us after we die?
  7. Who’s had the greatest influence on your life and why?
  8. What are the qualities that you admire in your friends?
  9. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
  10. How would you describe yourself?
  11. If you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
  12. What’s important in your life?
  13. If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?
  14. What’s a secret ambition of yours?
  15. Who in your life would you like to thank and for what?
  16. What principles have guided your life?
  17. Where do you find serenity?
  18. What makes you sad?
  19. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your life?
  20. How would you like to be remembered?
  21. If you had only one day to live, how would you live it?
  22. How would you describe your spiritual beliefs?
  23. Who is the most important person in your life today and why?
  24. What was the worst job you ever had and why was it so bad?
  25. What’s your idea of a good time?
  26. What’s wrong with the world?
  27. What’s one big question you’d like answered?
  28. What is it that you absolutely couldn’t live without?
  29. How would you describe yourself as a child?
  30. What’s the greatest gift you could give to someone you love?
  31. What does love mean to you?
  32. What was the best job you ever had and why was it the best?
  33. If you had to evacuate your home immediately and could take only one thing, what would it be and why?
  34. What do you still want to accomplish?
  35. What’s right with the world?
  36. What’s one thing you’d like to change about yourself?
  37. How would you describe your perfect day?
  38. What event in your life would you like to live over and why?
  39. What are you avoiding?
  40. What are your best qualities?
  41. What’s the most romantic thing you’ve done for someone?
  42. Who are your heroes and why?
  43. What are your failings?
  44. What’s the kindest thing you’ve done for someone?
  45. What is more important to you,  challenge or comfort and why?
  46. How is your home like you?
  47. If your life were a motion picture, what would the title be?
  48. Who in your life would you like to forgive and  for what?
  49. What are the advantages of getting older?
  50. What would you place in a time capsule that would tell a relative 1oo years from now who you were?

Do you have some questions that you think should be on the list? Please add them in the comment box below. I always appreciate hearing from you.

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Part One. Life Stories and Palliative Care: Your Questions Answered.

I recently participated in the Association of Personal Historians annual conference in Victoria, BC. One of my presentations was  Life Stories as Healing: Working in an End-of-Life Environment. In the workshop we looked at some of the skills needed and challenges faced in providing life stories for patients receiving palliative care.

Near the end of our session I asked participants to write down one “burning question” they wanted answered. We  had time for only a few. I decided that for those who didn’t have their questions answered I would deal with them here. I thought that those of you who weren’t at my workshop might also appreciate seeing the questions and answers. Next week I’ll tackle further questions in Part Two.

How does one set up a personal history program with a hospice?

There is no one right way to set up a program. Much will depend on the local circumstances. From my experience with Victoria Hospice  I’ve learned a few lessons and passed these along in two articles How to Establish a “Life Stories” Hospice Program. Part One and Part Two. For those of you interested in the possibility of a life stories program at your Hospice, these articles would be a good place to start.

Why not charge for life stories work at a hospice? Why should this work be voluntary?

If you’re a professional personal historian, you can request a fee from your Hospice for your services or provide it pro bono. That decision is really up to you and your Hospice.

As a rule, I don’t volunteer my professional services. What I do at Victoria Hospice is volunteer on a regular shift just like the other volunteers. I’ve been doing that for five years.

With regards to the Life Stories program I established, I trained 12 Hospice volunteers, nine of whom are actively engaged in the work. I designed and ran the training programs and for that I was paid my regular fee. I don’t do life story  interviews with patients unless there is no one else available.

I still continue to do the co-ordination of the program on a voluntary basis but I’m working to hand this over eventually to another volunteer. My goal is to have the Life Stories program be totally self sufficient without my involvement. From the beginning I made it clear to the Victoria Hospice administration that I wanted to see such a service succeed but that I did not want to continue to be involved in its day-to-day operation.

Are your hospice “Life Stories” volunteers paid and do the families pay for the service?

Our Life Stories volunteers, save one,  are not professional personal historians and are not paid. They do this work as part of their contribution to Victoria Hospice. We do not charge families for this service.

I should add that from the beginning we decided to keep the service as simple and as cost effective as possible. We only provide unedited audio interviews transferred to CDs. We also provide a list of resource people in the community that families can hire should they wish to do more with their interviews.

How long is a typical “Life Stories” interview session?

To be honest there isn’t really a typical session. So much depends on the condition of the patient. We don’t schedule more than an hour but sessions can be as short as 10 or 15 minutes if the patient is weak or drowsy.

What is the typical time it takes for your volunteers to complete a personal history project?

Again, there is no typical length of time. We tell patients that they can use up to 5 hours of interview time to tell their story. Some manage that and others become too ill to continue beyond an hour or two. So much depends on the overall health of  a patient  when they start the process.

Given the fact that our patients are frail, it can sometimes take 6 or more  weeks to complete 5 hours of interview.

What if the patient is resistant to talking at all?

Our Life Stories program is only offered to those Victoria Hospice patients who request it. At any time a patient may opt out of the Life Stories program if they find it not to their liking.

Next week watch for Part Two.

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Photo by Kelly Sue DeConnick

How to End Your Book or Video Life Story.

The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.
~ James A. Baldwin

Imagine that you’re coming to the last chapter of a book or the final hour of a video life story you’re doing.  It may be your own or it could be a story you’ve been hired to record. Every detail has been covered from childhood to the present. How can you wrap up this life story in a way that feels satisfying? As a colleague said, “The book is ending; the life is not.”

An approach of mine that you might try is to use the final chapter to explore what I call contemplative questions. These are questions that go to the core values and beliefs of a person -  such things as life lessons learned, regrets and successes, hopes for the future, expressions of forgiveness and gratitude, and spirituality.

While some of this content may arise naturally in the course of recounting a life, it’s useful to focus on it at the end. Why? Because as a personal historian I find that my clients and I have developed a rapport by the end of hours of interviewing. There is a level of trust and comfort that is more conducive to sharing heartfelt convictions.

Another reason for covering this material at the end is that by that point a person has looked back on their life and examined it in detail. This process of recollection naturally begins to raise existential questions.

One lesson I’ve learned though is that these contemplative questions should never be sprung on people. The first time I tried this,  my poor client stared at me like a deer caught in the headlights. People need time to reflect and compose their answers in a calm and unhurried manner. Now I hand out the contemplative questions to my clients a week or two in advance so they have  time to think them over.

There’s no right way to end a life story. But if you’re searching for an approach that works, I’d recommend using a series of contemplative questions. You can find a sample of contemplative questions in a previous post here.

For other examples of contemplative questions, check these out. Not all the questions may be suitable in your case, but you’ll find plenty that are.

Image by Dan Curtis from a photo by Per Ola Wiberg

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Life Stories and Palliative Care. When Time Is Running Out, What Do You Focus On?

At  Victoria Hospice we’re into the third year of a Life Stories  service for patients registered with Hospice.  This is a program that I initiated and continue to be involved with as  a trainer and a mentor for our Life Stories Volunteer Interviewers.

Among the concerns that have arisen for the Interviewers, one, in particular, has been problematic. What part of a Life Story do you focus on when it appears patients may have only a few weeks or days to live? Patients may initially indicate that they want to talk about the broad spectrum of their lives from childhood to the present. The reality, unfortunately, is that they’re not likely to have enough time to complete such an undertaking.

Here’s what I’ve suggested. The Hospice Interviewer and patient agree to start with contemplative questions first. These are questions that reveal something of who the person, rather than the details of their life. If time permits, they can always go back to talk about childhood beginnings and the important stories from their life. So what might some of these contemplative questions be? Here are some samples.

  • What would you like to say to your loved ones?
  • What has been important in your life?
  • What are you the proudest of in your life?
  • What do you admire most about each of your children?
  • What has brought happiness to your life?
  • What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned in life?
  • What regrets do you have?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • What is it that most people don’t know about you?
  • What are you grateful for?

Even if you’re not involved with palliative-care patients, you may find yourself at times interviewing someone who’s very frail and elderly. There’s no guarantee that time is on your side. In such cases you may want to give some thought as to what’s  essential to record. Focusing on more contemplative questions may be the answer.

Photo by Jill  Watson

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7 Essential Questions to Consider Before Offering a Personal History Service to the Terminally Ill.

I know some of you are interested in the possibility of providing personal history services to the terminally ill. I’ve been helping those at the end-of-life record their personal histories  as well as volunteering at Victoria Hospice for the past five years.  I find it tremendously satisfying work but it’s not for everyone. If you’re seriously contemplating working with the dying, here are seven questions to ponder.

  • How flexible are you with your schedule?

If you’re someone who gets easily frustrated and cranky when your plans go awry, then this may not be the work for you. People who are ill can plan to meet you on a certain day but at the last moment cancel because they’re not feeling up to it. Or they simply forgot because medications can sometimes make people a little muddled. At other times  family or friends drop by unexpectedly and you’re put on hold. You  have to accommodate ill people’s schedules, not yours.

  • How calm are you?

Terminally ill people are already under a lot of stress. They don’t need you to add to it. If you’re a high energy Type A personality, easily flustered, who finds it hard to sit still, then this isn’t the work for you. When you’re with people who are dying, you need to be able to set aside your own problems and mental shopping lists and be focused, present, and relaxed.

  • How patient are you?

This is a big one. There’s always something that can go wrong. If you’re an impatient person, you’ll not last long at this work. Circumstances can alter dramatically. As I mentioned, schedules can change abruptly. Or you’re told on arrival that everything recorded on the previous visit must be deleted because people fear it may be offensive to their family. Or you arrive at the same time that “home care” arrives to start  vacuuming the house. Sometimes you find that you had scheduled an hour long interview but after fifteen minutes people are too tired to continue. This is after you’ve driven thirty minutes or more to get to the patient’s home.

  • How comfortable are you around sadness?

Being with people who are near life’s end is inherently sad. Your interviews will naturally unlock tears in people as they’re reminded of their shortness of time.  And it’s sad when you’ve come to know someone well and that person dies. If you’re by nature a melancholy person or one who avoids emotionally challenging situations, this is not the work for you.

  • How well do you deal with disappointment?

If you’re someone who needs concrete accomplishments and goals you might be disappointed by this work. Sometimes a life story is abruptly terminated because the person you’re working with becomes too ill to continue. You’re left with a half completed story with no chance of finishing it. Or stories you know would be invaluable to the family are “off limits” because people don’t want to talk about anything that might make them “tear up”.

  • How well are you at establishing boundaries?

As you spend time with terminally ill people, your role as a professional personal historian may become compromised.  Let me be clear.  Your work doesn’t involve running errands, counseling, being friends, or providing help with physical care.

You must be clear about your boundaries. It may be appropriate occasionally to pick up some item on your way over for an interview but you’re not a delivery service. You’re definitely not a therapist and you shouldn’t be offering anything that remotely appears to be counseling.  Spending time talking to people about their lives is by its very nature  intimate work. Occasionally you may  sense a budding friendship. This is a tough one to handle. Think carefully what a friendship will involve. Are you able to spend the time and emotional energy that such a relationship will entail? My advice is to move cautiously on this one. As far as any kind of physical care, such as helping with a transfer or feeding, don’t do it! You are not a health care professional and you could cause your subject serious injury.

  • How do you handle stress?

Providing personal history services for those at end-of-life is stressful. Whether it’s mediation, a hobby, long walks, or a network of friends, you’ll need to do something to manage your stress. If you haven’t ways of coping with stress, then you’ll become burned out by this work.

Photo © Michael Spring |

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14 Questions to Help You Build a Better Business.

I find the end of the year a good time to take stock of  my personal history business.  I set aside a day and look at my successes and the things that didn’t work.  I make a point of  writing this all down. It’s an important exercise that holds me accountable and keeps me growing as a professional. Why not take some time and do your own year-end review? A word of caution. Don’t beat yourself up for perceived failures but at the same time don’t sweep them under the rug. Here are the questions I ask myself. What questions would you add? Let me know. I’d like to hear from you.

  1. What has worked this year?
  2. Why has it worked?
  3. What have I learned from my successes?
  4. How will I apply this learning to next year?
  5. What hasn’t worked this year?
  6. Why hasn’t it worked?
  7. What have I learned from my failures?
  8. How will I apply this learning to next year?
  9. What do I need to do more of?
  10. What do I need to do less of?
  11. On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied am I with my performance this year?
  12. What do I need to do to push my satisfaction level  higher?
  13. Where do I want to be at this time next year?
  14. What do I have to do to get there?

Photo by iStockphoto

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