Tag Archives: questions to ask

My Top 10 Posts of 2011.

It’s the end of the year and time for list making.  These are the posts from 2011 that were the most popular with readers.  If you’ve missed some of them, now’s  your chance to catch up over the holidays. Enjoy!

  1. The 50 Best Life Story Questions.
  2. 25 No Cost or Low Cost Marketing Ideas for Your Personal History Business.
  3. How Much Should You Pay a Personal Historian?
  4. 15 Great Memoirs Written by Women.
  5. 5 Top Sites for Free Online Videography Training.
  6. The Top 3 Prosumer HD Camcorders Under $2,500.
  7. How to Boost Your Interviewing Skills.
  8. Three Crucial Steps to Starting Your Personal History Business.
  9. 5 Print-On-Demand Sites You’ll Want to Consider.
  10. 12 Top Rated Family Tree Makers.

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Encore! 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… Read more.

Encore! 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.”… More

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.

conclusion

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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From the Archives: 7 Questions to Ask Before Taking on a New Personal History Client.

7 Questions to Ask Before Taking on A New Personal History Client. What’s worse than having no clients at all? If you said the client from hell, you’re absolutely right. Here are seven questions to ask yourself that will ensure that you don’t end up working with Satan’s cousin.

1. Do I have the time? Look carefully at what’s on your plate right now. This should include not only current projects but also  ongoing business tasks such as networking, promotion, and bookkeeping. Don’t forget to factor in personal … Read More

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

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 is, 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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More Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Personal Historian.

question-hand

I was looking at an earlier article I wrote, Six Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Personal Historian, and realized that I’d missed three important questions.

  • What is your specialty? Be leery of anyone who answers, “Oh, I like to work on everything – books, video, audio – you name it!” It’s true that there are  personal historians who are multi-talented and produce more than one type of product.  But even if that is the case,  I’d ask what the personal historian enjoys working on the most. Chances are that she will have a preference and if her preference doesn’t match yours, then I’d want to see some concrete examples of her work. Bottom line – if you want a book produced, it makes sense to hire someone who has a track record making books. Similarly, if you want a  DVD, hire a personal historian whose specialty is  video.
  • How long have you been a personal historian? There isn’t a magical number of years of experience that turns someone into a seasoned personal historian. But I’d prefer to hire someone who had been working professionally for at least a couple of years. The longer a personal historian has been working, the more experience he will have and the more samples of his work he will also have for your perusal. On the other hand if a personal historian is just starting out, you might be able to work out a discount depending on what he’s charging.
  • What attracted you to this work? There isn’t any right answer to this question.  What you want to be wary of is a reply that sounds too pat, contrived, or rehearsed. Listen for an answer that suggests that this work resonates deeply with this person. For instance, she may have a compelling  story to tell about the path that led her to become a personal historian.

Photo by Massimiliano Giani

7 Questions to Ask Before Taking on a New Personal History Client.

question

What’s worse than having no clients at all? If you said the client from hell, you’re absolutely right. Here are seven questions to ask yourself that will ensure that you don’t end up working with Satan’s cousin. 

  1. Do I have the time? Look carefully at what’s on your plate right now. This should include not only current projects but also  ongoing business tasks such as networking, promotion, and bookkeeping. Don’t forget to factor in personal chores such as shopping, caregiving, and cleaning. No one wants to say no to potential work. But you also want to do the best for your client while at the same time not become over- extended.
  2. Is this a client I like? One of the pleasures of being a personal historian is that we get to work with some incredibly interesting people. If you find that your potential client exhibits behavior and expresses beliefs that are antithetical to yours, you should seriously question continuing with that client. Remember, you’ll be spending many hours together and you don’t want to be continually agitated by someone you basically don’t like.
  3. Am I a good fit for this client? Each of us tends to specialize. In my case it’s video life stories although I have done some books. If your potential client is looking for a life story in a format in which you haven’t much  experience, then consider referring that client to someone who does have the expertise.  You’ll gain the respect of your client for being forthright. If you still want to take on this client, do you have access to people who could help you in those areas where you’re less proficient?
  4. Does this client have the support of other family members? Families can be messy – not at all like those Norman Rockwell paintings. You don’t want inadvertently to get yourself into some long-standing family squabble. Ask if your  client has discussed this undertaking with other family members. Are they supportive? Are there concerns? If there hasn’t been any discussion, then have your client bring together all the parties concerned so that you can talk to the group about what’s involved and answer questions.
  5. Am I treated as a professional? Remember you are a professional. If you’re like me, you’ve had decades of experience in a field related to personal history, have a university degree or two, and have a portfolio of personal history projects. So watch out for potential clients who fail to return calls, keep changing appointment times, forget meetings, try to “nickel and dime” you to death, and imply that their “cousin Bob” could do the work for half the price. None of this is in keeping with treating you as a professional. No one would treat a lawyer, accountant, or doctor that way. You shouldn’t put up with this kind of behavior either.
  6. Is this potential client the one who will be paying me? From my experience, it’s not uncommon for the person requesting my service  not to be the same person paying for it. For example, a daughter may inquire about doing a personal history for her mother but it is the parent who will be paying for the work.  From the beginning it’s important to establish who is paying for your service. You want to have all the principal players in the same room so that you can explain the process directly and address any concerns that may arise. Failure to do this can mean misinterpreted information is relayed  and additional meetings may be needed to clarify matters. This is not a productive use of your time.
  7. Will working with this client stretch me professionally? I don’t know about you, but I thrive on challenges. If I had to do the same thing day-in and day-out, I’d be bored.  Now  it’s  a truism that clients pay you for what you know not what you need to know. It may sound as if I’m contradicting Question Three above. However, if you tell your client you’d enjoy taking on the challenge of expanding your skills, you might gain their support. You can sweeten the deal by offering your service at  a lower than normal fee to compensate for your learning.

What tips do you have for screening potential clients?

[Thanks to Web Worker Daily for suggesting this topic.]

Photo by Marco Bellucci

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