The Life Story Not Recorded

“I wish I would have known you (x number of) years ago when my grandmother (or grandfather) was still alive. She had the best stories and once she got going telling those stories, you couldn’t get her to stop!” My next comment is typically, “Did you record those stories while she was still alive?” Invariably, the answer is, “No.”

Mother-daughter photo

What is lost by not recording the stories? Only you can answer the emotional response to that question. But based on over a decade of recording the life stories of many individuals, couples and siblings for their families, I can give you the logical main reasons. Lost are:

  1. Many stories you’ve never heard before.
  2. The audible sound of their voice.
  3. The physical movements and body language as they expressed themselves in many scenarios.
  4. The facts that connect you to this loved one. Facts that you never knew or ever dreamed existed.

I could list many more, but I think you get the picture.

The next question is, “Why weren’t the stories ever recorded?” Whether you consider the answer that question reasons or excuses makes no difference. The answers are so varied…and so sad.

The good news is that you now have the opportunity to not make that same mistake again. You have the opportunity to record the life stories of a friend or loved one now. This article is written as a guide to help you do just that. I will post helpful hints on how to record those stories in future blog posts.

These blog posts will combine some of the training that I received in the 1990s preparing to interview Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) with the practical experience I’ve enjoyed interviewing hundreds of people since starting LifeStories Alive in 2005.

My hope is that the posts serve as a guide that gives you the basics to take the plunge and capture the life stories of someone you love. Even though you may have never interviewed someone before in anything that resembles this method or reason, you will not regret it. Why? I know that you will feel, as I do every time I finish a LifeStories Alive interview, that goose bump-causing rush when they finish answering the last question you ask them, and they sigh that familiar sigh knowing that their stories are now recorded for generations to come. You, then, can feel the satisfaction of knowing that you were the one, not anyone else, who gave their lives more meaning and helped them fulfill the goal of passing along their legacy.

Enjoy the process. Have fun. And thanks for keeping those life stories alive!

An Answer to the Tough Question, “Why Record Their Life Stories?”

Over the years of recording people’s life stories, I will ask my clients, who are usually the children of the interviewee(s), “Why do you want to record their life stories?” While the answers I have heard may vary, the root of the answers usually incorporate a common theme. That common theme is as tough to grasp as the question itself: the realization of their mortality.

We all know we are, some day, going to die. Our society has taught us that discussing this, even just thinking about it, is a frightening thing to do. And when we think of it happening to someone we love, emotion kicks in and then we really don’t want to talk or think about it. But when considering the mortality of a loved one, one of the risks of giving in to the fear of not addressing it is that one of the most important legacies they could leave behind, their stories, will be lost forever.

As with most of our fears that we finally address, confronting the fear and dealing with it leaves us in a state of gratitude for the lessons we learn from the experience. I continually hear from my clients after they’ve viewed the LifeStory we recorded of their loved one, tremendous joy in not only hearing the stories, but knowing that they are preserved forever.

The good news is that, while I’d love to help you record the stories, you don’t need a professional to record the stories of your loved ones. You can do it yourself. The next blog post will give you helpful hints on how to do it yourself.

In the meantime, think of the collective hugs you get when you answer the tough question, “Why record their life stories?”

mother hugs

 

 

Listening – Uncovering the Forgotten Communication Tool – Part II: Handling the “What Ifs” (Emotion)

The subject of communication is as vast as an ocean. I’ll try to teach the tools I’ve learned one drink at a time, so we can swallow and enjoy each one.  Let’s begin exploring the “what ifs” that inevitably come up in conversation. As we learn together the tools used to become a better listener, one of the most fearful situations that people are forced to handle is emotion.

“What if they start crying?” “What if I start to cry?” “What do I do?” In the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I have, as you can imagine, encountered tears in many forms and for many reasons. Here are some rules of thumb that I use when emotion comes up. Please realize that my comments are taken with my role at LifeStories Alive in mind, as an interviewer there to record their LifeStories…not as a parent, loving spouse, or best friend.

What if they start to cry?

 

  1. Don’t interrupt the emotion or say anything! This one is tough for me to do. My childhood upbringing taught me that it is proper to comfort a person who gets emotional. What I have found, however, in the setting of a conversation, is that if I let them get the emotion out…completely out…they will feel better when they are finished. Another benefit is that some of the most valuable pearls of wisdom and heart-felt comments have come at the end of uninterrupted emotion. Here’s an example: http://tinyurl.com/6n3cge8. What would I have missed if I interrupted that emotion?
  2. Be compassionate with your body language but never say, “I understand” (because you don’t) or “It’s okay” (because it might not be). It’s better to acknowledge the emotion, but don’t try to make it go away.
  3. Don’t invade their personal space. I’m a hugger. I want to gently touch them when the emotion happens. I have learned that invading their personal space will interrupt the emotion, and that’s the last thing I want to happen.
  4. How will I know when they are finished with the emotion? They will always let you know by making eye contact with you. Even after they make that eye contact, take a good, long pause to be sure that they are finished.

What if I start to cry?

With the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I get emotional during an interview. Here are some helpful tools I keep in mind:

  1. Take a deep breath. I try to do this as quietly as possible. I don’t want the audio of a deep breath on my part to be heard (although my editor can remove it in post-production editing).
  2. Keep a tissue or handkerchief near. The audible sound of sniffles is distracting to the speaker/interviewee.
  3. After their emotion is finished, it might be appropriate to explain why what they said touched you…but do this only after you are sure they are finished.

Emotion is a natural part of life. Handling emotion in a respectful way will help make you better listener and, thus, a better communicator.

Listening – Uncovering the Forgotten Communication Tool – Part I: The Basics

Most of us have heard the importance of communication in school, business and life, in general. Some of us have been taught some skills and tools to use in order to improve our use of communication. But very few, if any, have been taught the most important of all the communication skills: listening.

I have been fortunate to be trained in listening skills and, thankfully, am able to apply those skills in the work I do at LifeStories Alive. It is my pleasure to share some of the skills I have been taught and the lessons I have learned through practical application of those skills. Whether you are a businessperson, classroom teacher, or a parent working at improving communication with your loved ones, I hope you enjoy and put to use these valuable tools I share with you.

Let’s start with the basics. While these points may seem obvious, most of us need to be reminded of them so we can practice them more often.

Stop talking

That’s right. I believe it is impossible to intently listen if you are bumping your gums (a slang for talking). While some people argue that they can listen and talk at the same time, I have seen the disastrous consequences of messing this one up. You will see soon that in order to apply some of the skills of a good listener listed below, you must first shut up!

Listen with your whole body

When I first heard this concept, I thought I knew what it meant. With further study, and listening to this TED Talk by Evelyn Glennie, I have a much better idea. This concept includes important practices like maintaining eye contact, leaning forward, intently watching their body language, and listening without judging. To better imagine what this basic tool is all about, in the next conversation you have today, imagine you are severely hearing impaired. Then realize during that conversation how important it is to “listen” to everything that is happening, not just what is being said.

Don’t interrupt!

This is the hardest thing for many people to learn. I know how hard it was, and still is for me. Here are a couple of tools I have learned that help with this subject:

  1. The next sentence you say has to include at least one word from the last sentence they say. This will force you to not only listen, but to pause after they’re finished talking…because you don’t know if they are really finished talking.
  2. The next sentence you say has to include at least one word from the last sentence they say. This will force you to not only listen, but to pause after they’re finished talking…because you don’t know if they are really finished talking.
  3. Practice using pauses of different lengths after they are finished. This is especially important when dealing with different emotions. When sadness and tears are involved, people tend to pause longer between thoughts expressed. Let those long pauses happen before you say anything!

I hope these basics help you to become a better listener. Remember, it takes practice to improve, but improving your listening skills can make a huge difference in your life.

How to Ask the Difficult Questions

One of the many rewards I receive from interviewing people for their LifeStories is the gratitude from the children and grandchildren of the interviewees. One of the things they typically say is, “I’ve known them all my life but have never heard that story before.” One of the reasons why they’ve never heard the story is because they never asked the question. The most common reason for not asking the question is because it is a difficult one to ask. Here are my thoughts on asking those difficult questions you’ve waited a lifetime to ask:

Thought #1 – Ask the Question Anyway – “How do I word the question?”, “When is the best time to ask it?”, Where should I ask them that question?” are all real fears that get in the way. I say, “As the question anyway.” The fact that you are concerned with those points should let you know that you are sensitive to the subject. If you let fear, however, get in the way of your asking the question, it will never be asked. All too often, I’ll hear at a funeral, “I never knew _____ about them.” If you don’t ask, you’ll never know! Ask anyway.

Thought #2 – Use Empathy – Think to yourself, “If someone were to ask me the same question, how would I want it to be asked of me?” Whatever the answer to that is, use it to ask the question. This is how I formulate many of the questions I use in the LifeStory interviews I conduct. If you follow this advice, your caring and concern for the other person will shine through and make their answer as genuine as it can be.

Thought #3 – They’ve Been Waiting for You to Ask the Question for a Long Time – While this idea might seem foreign to you, you’ll be surprised when they tell you, “I knew you were going to ask me that. I just didn’t know when you were going to get around to it.” The amazing thing about this is that the’ve had an answer for you in their mind for a long time. Think about it in your own life experiences…some things you are just not going to volunteer to tell people unless and until they ask. But when they ask, you will gladly answer. It’s true!

Thought #4 – Approach the Question with the Benefit of Others in Mind – Here’s an example of what I mean by that: “I know you went through a divorce in 1968. Please share with me what experiences you went through and what lessons you learned from those experiences so others (substitute here “your grandchildren”, “your children”, “I”, etc. instead of “others” if it fits) will not go through the same difficult times as you did.” Remember, everyone goes through difficult times in life. Most people would be happy to share those experiences if it means being able to help others avoid making the same mistakes they made.

Thought #5 – Sincere Interest and Genuine Curiosity – I’ve mentioned this before and cannot emphasize it enough. Questions about someone’s life should always be asked with sincere interest and genuine curiosity…and you cannot fake either! This is especially important when you ask difficult questions. The person you are asking will see this and will more likely respond favorably.

Be sure to give yourself a pat on the back when you ask those difficult questions. It’s a brave thing you are doing and you should reward yourself for doing so.

 

Teach Your Children Well

The lyrics of Graham Nash come to mind as I ask my LifeStories Alive interviewees about the valuable lessons they’d like to teach their children. I disagree with Nash’s last stanza, “Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry, So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.” http://tinyurl.com/878l4bl. Yes, tears will sometimes flow as we ask our children (or our parents), “Why?”, but with great risk comes great reward. The answers to what we want to teach our children are so valuable, the questions should, and must, be asked. I have seen the rewards of asking…and they are priceless.

The challenge, however, is not knowing how to ask those questions…questions of lessons learned that should be passed down to future generations. My best advice is to first realize the risk of not asking the questions, and , thus, not allowing the lessons to be learned. When we think of mistakes that we’ve made because we were never taught to avoid them, we begin to realize our multi-generational responsibility. Thinking of this puts us in the frame of mind to ask those questions.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, setting the right environment, or a safe place, for stories to be shared is very important. If possible, ask the questions where you will have minimal chances of interruption. It is horrible to have someone sharing thoughts from their hearts only to have them stopped mid-stream by an interruption. Once someone is “in the zone” of sharing words of wisdom, make it easy to stay in “the zone”.

It is also essential to practice great listening skills while asking these questions. A good, long pause after you think the interviewee has finished with their thought will prevent you from missing a pearl of wisdom that usually follows a long pause of thought. Practice this in your regular, day-to-day conversation to fine-tune this skill. In every LifeStory interview I conduct, I find moments when I am glad I waited that extra second before I said something. This video clip is a perfect example http://tinyurl.com/8xhbzce . Had I interrupted his emotion by saying something, I never would have heard, “I miss my Dad”. While this might not seem like a direct lesson taught to a child, his son sure learned a lot about his father from this clip!

As to what questions to ask so great lessons can be passed along, I suggest using empathy while formulating your questions to ask. For instance, if you are formulating a question regarding parenting skills, ask yourself, “What question should someone ask me if I wanted to pass along what I think a good parent should do?” This is usually a good place to start when thinking about what to ask your interviewee. It will also aid the interviewee in feeling that you posses two of the most important attributes in conversation: sincere interest and genuine curiosity.

So, with all due respect, Graham Nash, I think the lyrics should read, “Go ahead and ask them why, if they told you, all will cry, So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.”

 

First Dates, First Kisses, and Other LifeStory Questions Covering the Early Teen Years

One of my favorite periods of time to cover during a LifeStory interview is the early teen years. I use empathy as much as possible when formulating the questions I will ask that cover this exciting, hormone-surging period of people’s lives. By that, I mean that I ask myself, “What were the things that I was thinking during those years of my life? What was going on with my friends and family during my early teen years?” After answering this, I then ask myself, “If someone were interviewing me, what questions should they ask me to really uncover the happenings and thoughts of my teen years?” By formulating questions this way, you will come across to the people you interview as having two of the most important traits of a good interviewer: sincere interest and genuine curiosity**.

You cannot cover the early teen years without asking about first dates and first kisses. While many of us have a smile on our faces as we anticipate an answer, be careful. The experience for your interviewee might not have been a positive one (but in most cases it was). I usually approach the subject by asking, “It is usually during the early teen years that people start dating. Please tell us, when was your first date and who was the lucky person?”

Their answer will naturally lead to the follow-up questions of, “Where did you go?”, “Why did you go there?” and “Was that where you got your first kiss?” As you can imagine, the answers can be all over the place, but mostly invoke smiles, reflection, and the interviewee leaving the present place of the interview and wondering in their minds back to that time and place. You’ll be able to see this if you pay close attention to their eyes and facial expression. This is exactly what you want. If that is where they go in their mind, then the answers to the follow-up questions will be knee-jerk and totally honest.

A good sample of this is in the following clip from a LifeStory I conducted in Wimberley, TX this year. This charming lady from Waco, TX told the most wonderful stories. While I encourage you as an interviewer to hold back your audible responses during the interview (whether happy or sad), I couldn’t hold my laughter back as she told her story of how a boy, quite literally, stole a kiss from her http://vimeo.com/31403390.

Practice asking those questions about first dates and first kisses with friends in conversation. But be prepared for a lot of fun responses!

** Having “sincere interest and genuine curiosity” is an important mindset and feeling in any form of communication. I learned and practiced this skill from a great trainer, Joe Zente of Z-three in Austin, Texas http://www.zthree.com/. If you are interested in learning more about it, give Joe a call. He helped make me a better communicator and a better business person.