The most common comment I hear from people who discover for the first time what I do at LifeStories Alive http://www.lifestoriesalive.com/ is, “I wish I would have known you (x) number of years ago when Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa was still alive.” Their message is that their stories are lost. Some might argue that their stories are not lost…they are transferred via the oral tradition (word of mouth via memory alone). My experience can agree with that only to a certain point. Here are three reasons why:
The way most stories are transferred from person to person and generation to generation are via the oral tradition. But how effective is that? As a kid, I used to play the Telephone Game http://tinyurl.com/yu2u6j with my friends. This is the game where kids sit in a circle, then the first player whispers a phrase or sentence to the next player. Each player successively whispers what that player believes he or she heard to the next. The last player announces the statement to the entire group. What happens? Have they “lost” the story? No, the story isn’t lost, but inevitably it has changed a lot! This same effect happens when we rely on the oral tradition alone to pass along those stories we deem precious.
But some stories are, indeed, lost. Why? The story that is never asked about is never told and, therefore, lost. After I have delivered the finished LifeStory DVDs, the most common comment I hear from my clients who are the children and grandchildren of the interviewees is, “I’ve known them all my life but have never heard that story (or stories).” They realize that if their loved one would have died before the stories were captured, those stories would have been lost forever. I can empathize with this feeling. My grandfather and father died within two months of each other in 1997 and their stories died with them. Oh, sure, we can remember some of their stories. But I know that there are hundreds that are lost forever…and that’s a horrible feeling. What gems will I never know? What connections to my past did I miss forever?
We must think of the historical examples showing the power of stories captured in order to imagine what happens if the stories are lost. Yes, Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank http://tinyurl.com/ofxas, could have told the story of his daughter who perished in the Holocaust. But what would our world be like without The Diary of a Young Girl? When Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam to discover his daughter’s stories written so beautifully, he realized how his life was enriched and touched by the connection that he now possessed…a connection that would have been lost had Anne not captured and preserved them.
What happens if we lose our stories? I think the better question is, “What will the people we love (or in Anne Frank’s case, the entire world) miss if our stories are lost?” I can only imagine that Anne Frank didn’t write her stories with the thought of what an effect they would eventually have, on her father or the entire world. But thank God she wrote them anyway.
“Fake it till you make it” has no place in productive conversations or interviews. Setting up the atmosphere for a productive conversations should be approached with a high level of sincere interest and genuine curiosity. Before I go further, I must give credit where credit is due. I learned this philosophy from the excellent training I received from Joe Zente and Z-Three Performance Development in Austin, TX http://www.zthree.com/ . Joe’s philosophy is that the person you are talking with is smart. If you conduct a conversation faking interest or curiosity, you will be discovered, “busted” and, even worse, come across as untrustworthy every time. Let’s cover what each idea means.
Sincere interest is, for some people, a difficult thing to display. So many people seem to be going through life having conversations at home, work and in social settings not seeming to care about anything, especially the person he is talking with. Sincere interest in the person you are talking with or the subject you are discussing cannot be faked…but it can be generated.
How do you generate sincere interest? One method is to expand the thought I mentioned in my last blog post – thinking of the conversation as being fun, of going on a treasure hunt! It is a fact that the person you are going to have a conversation with knows some pearls of wisdom that can enrich your mind and life. Your job is to find those pearls by diving into questions that will uncover your treasure while having conversation. Asking good questions can engage the other person’s interest as well as yours, thus creating a mutually beneficial and fun treasure hunt for wisdom. I’ll be covering questioning techniques in a future blog post.
Genuine curiosity is also a key ingredient. For some people, genuine curiosity is not hard to do. But if you are one of those people who are not so curious, remember this (again learned from Z-Three Development): if you draw a pie chart and divide it into three sections, one section takes up about 10% of the chart, the other takes up 10% and the third section takes up the remaining 80%. Now fill in the first small section with “KNK” (I know what I know), the second small section with “KWDK” (I know what I don’t know), and the large section with “DKDK” (I don’t know what I don’t know). This provides a visual that is absolutely true. What we know that we know and what we know that we don’t know are cognizant and small in comparison to the vast amounts of information that we don’t know that we don’t know! Realizing that filling in that large section of the pie, what we don’t know that we don’t know, is found in the treasures we discover through conversations we have with others, should generate genuine curiosity to what the other person has to say!
So go out there and have fun on your treasure hunt. You might even strike it rich!
Now that you’ve set the ground rules for your conversation, the next step to set a productive atmosphere is to do your homework. By this, I mean to study and understand who you will be talking with. From the New Yorker magazine article about Terry Gross http://tinyurl.com/95g6m I mentioned in an earlier blog post http://tinyurl.com/26yjwky , the author writes,”What often puts those guests at ease is Gross’ understanding of their work.”
Another way of explaining this trait of Terry’s came from the answer to a question I once asked of John Burnett, an NPR reporter and colleague of Terry’s http://tinyurl.com/2394l5o , at a speech he gave in Austin. I asked John, “How does Terry Gross do it? How does she consistently, interview after interview, conduct such quality interviews, asking such great questions and getting such informative answers?” John’s answer was simple, “She has no life!” After a chuckle, he explained, “No one does their homework better than Terry Gross. If you go to her apartment, her bed is covered with books and articles about the next person she is going to interview.”
There is no doubt that knowing the person you are talking with helps to make for a more productive conversation. But if you are going to be talking with someone who you’ve never met before, then do some simple homework on the internet using search engines like Google. It’s amazing (even scary) how much is out there about us and others. The more you know about someone as you enter into a conversation, the more they think you care…and that is huge. One of my favorite expressions is, “People don’t care how much you know if they know how much you care.”
The best thing about this kind of homework is that it’s fun. Searching for information about someone is like going on a treasure hunt. You will find, unexpectedly, things about people you didn’t know…things that make them much more interesting to talk to than you ever imagined! To make your homework and the conversation you will have even more productive, see my next blog post “Sincere Interest and Genuine Curiosity.”
If you want to have a conversation with a person and your desire is to have them feel so comfortable that their answers to your questions are volunteered instead of being surrendered, then you must create an atmosphere that is conducive to such a conversation. While this is more challenging in a formal interview setting, it is still possible.
Your first step is to set ground rules before you start the conversation or interview. Here are some helpful hints. Let the person you are talking with know:
- You are just going to have a casual conversation.
- There are no right or wrong answers.
- They will not be judged in any way.
- If they want to change their mind or their answers mid-stream, it’s okay.
- They can say whatever they want to say. Everything is acceptable and welcomed.
- They are welcome to leave the conversation whenever they want.
- You will respect their time constraints or limitations in the conversation.
- You want them to feel comfortable in the conversation.
- You are looking forward to the conversation.
The more formal the setting, the harder this is to do, but if the other person realizes there’s no way to “fail”, then they will immediately feel more relaxed…and a interviewee that is relaxed is a happy interviewee.
Very few people will do this in a normal conversation, but try it anyway. You’ll see that the other person will gain respect in you because you care enough to mention these things. In addition to that, you will probably catch them off-guard because no one has ever before mentioned those things before the conversation has even started. It might seem weird to you at first, but try it anyway. You’ll be surprised with the results!
The best of the best in the field of interviewing people for their LifeStories is Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s program Fresh Air. I just listened to another one of her great interviews, last Wednesday’s live interview she conducted in New York City with another favorite of mine, Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show http://www.thedailyshow.com/. One of the ingredients to her success is that she sets an atmosphere that makes the interviewees feel comfortable. This is mentioned on the profile of Terry at NPR’s website http://tinyurl.com/95g6m. “Gross isn’t afraid to ask tough questions, but she sets an atmosphere in which her guests volunteer the answers rather than surrender them. What often puts those guests at ease is Gross’ understanding of their work. ‘Anyone who agrees to be interviewed must decide where to draw the line between what is public and what is private. But the line can shift, depending on who is asking the questions,’ observes Gross. ‘What puts someone on guard isn’t necessarily the fear of being ‘found out.’ It sometimes is just the fear of being misunderstood.'”
How can you set an atmosphere for talking with people who will lead to stories being shared? I will be addressing this in my blog posts this week. The great thing about learning how to set such a safe atmosphere is it will inevitably lead to better communication skills in all areas of your life! Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post: Setting Atmospheric Ground Rules.
I don’t know what it is about me. I seem to be a magnet for people to share their LifeStories…and many of them don’t know what I do for a living! Are you a magnet of stories? This evening was a perfect example. I have been on the board of Directors of the ZACH Theatre here in Austin, TX http://www.zachtheatre.org/ for a few years now. This evening was a cocktail party introducing and welcoming the new members of our Board. On more than one instance, I would meet these incredibly accomplished new people for the first time and they would begin sharing their life’s stories with me…and I didn’t even ask them to! I have been told that I am a magnet in this way.
So how do you handle it if you are the chosen one? How do you deal with all these stories that people feel compelled to share with you? In all seriousness, it is a very big responsibility. Why? Because if their stories are truly important to someone else (or society at large), then they should be captured and preserved in some way. The problem is that people don’t think about it. It’s time to think about it.
Most folks will not admit that their stories are worth anything. Do you remember the last conversation you had with someone in a social setting and you told yourself, “That’s the coolest story I’ve heard in a long time. That’s a story that (fill in a name) needs to hear. She could really benefit from meeting this person and knowing that story?” And if it can benefit one person, it can possibly benefit more or even change the lives of millions for the better.
So what do you do with it? Suggest that they record it. Most of us don’t realize that it can be done at that moment. If you have an iPhone, you more than likely have an app built into it called “Voice Memos” http://tinyurl.com/27t6rdd . Just whip it out, turn on the app and ask the person to repeat the story. You can later transfer it onto your computer http://tinyurl.com/2fkcffz and then share the story with the people you think it might help!
So now all of you fellow LifeStory magnets out there will know what to do with those stories we hear (and don’t want to hear). But be sure to let the teller of the stories know you want to share the story with others! This is one instance where it is better to ask for permission before you must ask for forgiveness!