Interviewing Family and Friends

This is a brief overview of the interview process. Most people who do this work get a great deal of satisfaction in helping their subjects define the meaning and purpose in their lives. Just witnessing, really hearing, understanding, and accepting, without judgment, another’s life story can be transforming.

A second and equally important part of this process is that the story will
provide a family legacy. These voices from the past are gifts for the future.

1. Planning

Most people are happy to tell of their experience, to tell the stories they have lived because they are what they know best and are also what are of most interest to them. This power is much like orenda, the magic power within traditional stories, which makes telling a life story to another person a kind of spiritual endeavor.

Contact the person and begin by establishing rapport. This means being as warm, friendly, sensitive, and flexible as possible, in all situations you encounter with the person. The key to good rapport is to be able to find your own balance between guiding and following. Assure them that they will be able to review the transcribed material and make corrections or revisions as they wish.

Think about what you want to accomplish and get your thoughts, questions, and materials (digital or tape recorder, video, cassettes, microphone) ready. Be sure to take extra batteries.

Be familiar with your equipment and know how to operate it so it doesn’t distract from the interview process.The interview will be even better if you allow time for the person you are interviewing to prepare, too. Provide a group of 6-10 questions to get them thinking.
Photos and other objects of memory, if available, can help people recall stories and events.
Create the right setting. A familiar setting in the person’s own home is the best.

2. Doing

For doing personal life stories, we recommend starting at the beginning of someone’s life, and then letting them determine the direction the interview should take. Because the your primary task is helping the person create and convey his/her meaning in life through the story of what has happened, an informal approach, eliciting open ended responses and in-depth comments, is best.

The most helpful questions are those that help the storyteller toward the feeling level. This is where the interview becomes active, and interactive, at its best, and where the most meaning in a person’s life comes from. Getting to a deeper level of reality can be achieved in many ways, from specific types of questions to comments, to sympathetic and responsive listening. The more interest, empathy, caring, warmth and acceptance that you can show, the deeper the response level. Questions like “How did that feel to you?” Or comments like, “You seem to be saying. . .,” coupled with a sincere, endearing sense of wonderment and appreciation at you are being told, will go a long way in helping the story teller to share his or her deep story.

The length of your interview may need to be determined by the health and/or age of the interviewee. If there is any doubt, start with 30 minutes. If the subject appears to be enjoying the experience, continue, but if he/she looks to be getting weary, then plan to continue at another time.

After the first session mark the audio tape with date, name and location and either leave it with the subject or ideally go on to the next step.

3. Transcribing

Many families want to keep the words and images of their loved ones to enjoy in the future. This is good, except that there is a denger that in 50 to 100 years the media on wich the interview is recorded will either deteriorate or the equipment needed to replay the material will be obsolete. The printed word on (acid-free/ archival paper) will survive indefinitely.

Transcribing is the most time consuming part of the process. The goal is to eliminate the questions asked by the interviewer and transform the interview into a single narrative. Allow about 2 hours for every hour of recorded tape for transcribing.

The next step is to offer the transcript to the interviewee to look over. Make any additions or corrections requested and then give them the completed final copy, along with their recorded audio tapes.

Conducting the Interview

For the Record:
Make an introductory announcement at the start of each audio or video recording. Record on tape the date and place of the interview; the name of the person being interviewed; his or her birth date and current address; and the names of the people attending the interview, including the interviewer and his or her relationship to the interviewee, and the name of the camera or recording operator if different than the interviewer

Questions to Ask

The questions and exercises that follow are given here only as suggestions. They are possible questions, covering many aspects of a person’s life that you can draw from. They provide a direction for you to pursue, if and when the person being interviewed has exhausted a topic. You should not feel bound by the questions. They are here only if you need them. Some people may require only a green light – a listening ear – to begin and carry their life story to its completion. Others may need periodic questions to keep their story going. It is more often the case that the fewer questions you ask in a life story interview, the better.

These suggested questions cover the life course and are presented in chronological order covering one topic or theme in depth at a time. This way, those that want to conduct the interview by life stage (chronologically) can still do so. The thematic arrangement allows you to focus on any one area you might want to in more depth. For example, if you are interested in the person’s role in local history, you could develop that theme further by focusing on what was going on in his or her world or community. Or if you would like to help someone in telling a spiritual autobiography, you could develop that theme area further by focusing on the important thoughts, feelings, and meanings of his or her life.

The general approach suggested here is to go over all the questions first to familiarize yourself with them; then think of the person you have chosen to interview and select only those most important questions that you will actually use to help you get the information you want about the person. Some questions may not apply at all to the person you have chosen to interview. In other cases, you may have to add some of your own questions that you know should be asked.

It is good idea for you create your own short list of interview questions, from those suggested here, as your personal set of working questions. Have a list of questions ready but be able to adapt to your situation and be flexible as the interview progresses. Your set of questions that you want to use specifically for your person’s life story may consist of only a dozen or so carefully selected broad, open-ended questions that you can add to with questions or comments to get at more details on any given topic, such as “What was that experience like for you?” “What happened next?” Tell me more about that.” These specially selected questions, will help with getting the most quality information.

To help your subject to think about his or her life story in advance, you could ask for a brief life summary before the interview actually takes place. This can be a helpful way to begin the process with a focus.

Birth and Family of Origin

One of the things that makes each of us special is the particular circumstances we
are born into.

What was going on in your family, your community and the world at the time of your birth?

Were you ever told anything unusual about your birth?

Are there any family stories told about you as a baby?

How would you describe your parents?

Cultural Setting and Traditions

Perhaps the next strongest influence on us after genetic makeup is our cultural heritage. This will be stronger for some than others.

What is the ethnic or cultural background of your parents?

Were there any stories of family members or ancestors who emigrated to this country?

What family or cultural celebrations, traditions, or rituals were important in your life?

Was religion important in your family?

Social factors

As the sphere of influence on us widens, new elements from the community, the social structure around us, and mass culture begin to have greater impacts on us.

Did you feel nurtured as a child?

What do you remember most about growing up with, or without, brothers and sisters?

What were some of your struggles as a child?

What pressures did you feel as a teenager, and where did they come from?

What was your first experience of leaving home like?


Most of us get some kind of education at home, whether we are aware of it as such or not. We all get some amount of education in our community schools or beyond.

How far did you go with your formal education?

What was the most important course you took in school or college?

What has been your most important lesson in life, outside of the classroom?

Love and Work

It was said by Freud that the two characteristics of a mature adult are the ability to love and to work. These are also themes that we carry with us throughout the rest of our lives, through the forms and shapes may change as we continue to change.

Do you remember your first date? Your first kiss?

Are you married?

Did you have any dreams or ambitions as a child? As an adolescent?

How did you end up in the type of work you do or did?

Has your work been satisfying to you, or has it been something you had to put your time into?

Historical Events and Periods

Each of us is born into a particular historical moment. Some moments in time may seem more significant or noteworthy than others, but each moment has its place and purpose.

What was the most important historical event you participated in?

Do you remember what you were doing on any of the really important days in our history?

What is different or unique about your community?

What did your work contribute to the life of your community?

What has your life contributed to the history of your community?


Retiring from a job or career often means a brand new phase and style of life. These years should not be left out of a life story, as they often represent a time of increased reflection.

What was retiring from work like for you?

How do you feel about your life now that you are retired?

What do you do with your time now?

Do you have grandchildren?

Inner Life and Spiritual Awareness

Many people feel that we carry within us a higher self that itself is guided by love, wisdom, detachment, compassion, and courage. It is important to express our understanding and experience of this part of us, as well.

What transitions or turning points did you experience as a teenager?

What changes have you undergone since 40? Since 50? (or beyond)?

What primary beliefs guide your life now?

How do your spiritual values and beliefs affect how you live your life?

What do you see as the purpose of life?

Major Life Themes

It is always better to end a life story interview with a few questions that help us
Reflect back over the whole of our lives. Taking a look at our lives as a whole will give us a better understanding of what the major themes and influences of our lives have been.

What were the crucial decisions in your life?

What has been the most important learning experience in your life?

Are you satisfied with the life choices you have made?

What you been your greatest accomplishments?

What matters the most to you now?

Vision of the Future

It can be very important, and even liberating, to reflect deeply on what you really want for your own life that is yet to come. It can be a way of creating the ending to your story that you would be most comfortable with. When you think about the future, what makes you feel most uneasy?

Is your life fulfilled yet?

What is your view on death?

What three things would you like said about your life when you die?

Closure Questions

It is also good to make it known when you feel you are coming to the end of the interview. A question or two that lets the teller know you are ready to bring it to a closure and gives him or her the opportunity to add some final thoughts to what has been said will facilitate the process.

Is there anything that we’ve left out of your life story?

When you have asked all of the questions that you want to and the teller is satisfied that you have together covered the story of his or her life well, then you can, you can remind the storyteller that after the recording is transcribed, he or she could go over the typed transcript with you for final approval and make any changes or corrections, of necessary.


Because the purpose of our work is to tell the life stories of the people being interviewed in their own words, it is important to make transcripts of everything this is said on the tapes.
The most readable narrative is one that is double-spaced, flows well, and uses good sentence structure and paragraph form. As mentioned earlier, it is best to eliminate the interviewer’s questions. Your task is to tell the person’s story in the words he or she has used, deciding where punctuation and paragraphs would go to create a flowing narrative.

Pronunciation and dialect can be tricky, but the simplest way is to use standard spelling for words spoken rather than transcribing words the way they may sound. The only other editing would be for ease in readability, like adding a word or phrase if an answer to a question is incomplete.

The next step after you have reviewed it yourself, is to offer it to the interviewee to look over and make any revisions or corrections.

Good Luck, This is a lot of work, but you will feel wonderful when you are finished!


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