“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.
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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