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Capture a life story in all its richness for a connection across time

Why are life stories important? Talking about our lives is how we learn more about ourselves, others, the world, and life.

Doing a life interview is a chance to travel through time. In the present moment, the best gift you can give someone is to listen to them. You'll find out about the past as you hear about real-life experiences. And along the way, you may discover some timeless insights to help guide you through your own future.

Life Interview

We live our lives forward, but we understand them backward. When you see a great movie or read a good book, you often want to see or read it again.

Older people also want to "read over" or "see" parts of their lives again. In looking back, we can identify turning points or dynamic events. We can clarify and organize our thinking about life, make sense of events, and enrich the meaning of our life story. If we make meaning as young adults by fashioning dreams, as older adults we make it by shaping memories. We see how the story of our life has turned out – then change what we can for the future and accept the rest. This process of looking back is formally called "life review."

Informal (simply reminiscing) or formal (an interview) life review offers a number of benefits for both young and old:

  • It creates a sense of continuity, linking the past with the present and the future.

  • It enables younger people to find out interesting things about their family members or members of their community, as well as the broader historical past.

  • It's a way to pass on family stories and traditions, and preserve family history and cultural heritage.

  • It builds self-esteem in those doing the telling and those doing the listening.

  • It helps young people develop research, interviewing, and listening skills.

  • It gives older people an opportunity to reflect on and assess their life achievements as well as disappointments.

  • It combats the isolation and sense of loss that may come with growing older.

  • It helps older people resolve conflicts and fears, and gives younger people a model for facing their own life challenges.

  • It promotes intergenerational interaction and understanding.

Think about interviews you've seen (e.g. on television) and experienced (e.g. by a doctor). What makes a "good" interview? Here are some tips for doing an effective life interview:

  • An interview is just like talking with someone, but with prepared questions.

  • You can write down the answers to the questions, or do an audio or video recording. Recording the interview ensures that you don't miss anything and also allows you to review the interview at a later time.

  • "Triggers" are important when you're doing a life interview. It isn't enough to say, "Tell me about your life." Triggers can be many things – questions, photographs, keepsakes, home movies, music.

  • Reading an evocative or thought-provoking story together can be an extremely effective trigger. To set the stage for the interview, you could read a book like Dream together. Dream is about time, legacies, hopes and dreams across a lifetime. With a multilayered story, remarkable artwork from 15 of the top illustrators in the world, and thought-provoking quotations from throughout history, this is the type of book that will spark a lot of conversation.

  • During an interview, ask questions slowly, giving the person time to answer.

  • You can use some "closed" questions (which prompt a respondent to give only a "yes" or "no" answer), but most should be "open" questions like: Tell me about...; Describe...; What was it like when...?; In what ways...?; Why...?; and How...?

  • Start with easy, friendly questions and work your way up to more difficult or sensitive questions.

  • Listen carefully to what the person says; don't interrupt or correct. Maintain eye contact and show interest by leaning forward and nodding.

  • As you listen to answers, other questions will come to mind. Asking follow-up questions will help you get more information.

  • If someone is talking about an unhappy or painful experience, show that you understand how they feel ("That's very sad"). If the person doesn't want to talk about something, that's okay – just go to the next question.

  • It's okay for there to be moments of silence or emotion. A person's life is important, and emotion is natural. Accept emotions as part of the process.

  • An interview shouldn't last more than about an hour. People do best when they're not tired. You can always do another interview. Doing several interviews actually allows you to think about answers, and come up with other questions based on the answers and things that interest you.

  • Don't forget to thank the person you've interviewed. They've been generous with their time and perhaps shared personal information. Let them know you value what they've shared. Send them a thank you note and even a copy of the interview (for corrections and additions).

Click here for sample life interview questions.

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