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.

How to Handle Emotion While Interviewing a Loved One

When considering interviewing a loved one for their LifeStories, one of the greatest fears people tell me they have is the fear found in the question, “How do I handle the emotion (especially the tears) that will come up during the interview?” I agree that it can be a tense, scary moment for the interviewer. Instead of thinking of it as a scary moment, think of it as an opportunity, and opportunities are something to look forward to. It is an opportunity because some of the most memorable moments and most valuable words of the recording have come during those emotional moments of the LifeStories I have captured.

Yesterday was a perfect example of this. I conducted an audio LifeStory (no video camera, just professional digital audio recording equipment) with an 87-year-old lady. Her husband of 65 years died just three years ago. So, as you can imagine, tears were shed when we talked about him. She worked at a movie theater at age 17 when they first dated. They had a favorite movie (in 1942) that had “their song” in it. Their song was “You Are Always in my Heart” http://tinyurl.com/3k9uea9. As I put a copy of the words in front of her and asked her to sing the song, she began crying toward the end of her beautiful singing. At the end of her emotion she said, “It’s just been so hard without him.” I could have avoided the question and subject all together, but I would have missed her sharing of how she really felt about her husband.

Here are a few hints about how to handle emotion as it comes up in an interview:

Helpful Hint #1 – Be Silent as it Happens – It is a tendency by many people to want to comfort the interviewee by saying something. Don’t! Any words you say will interrupt their emotion. Some of the most priceless words from their hearts will come at he end of their emotion. If you interrupt their emotion, you will lose and miss those heartfelt words. Here’s an example: http://tinyurl.com/4y7lk6q.

Helpful Hint #2 – Wait Until the Emotion is Finished – This is perhaps the hardest thing for most people to do. How will you know when the emotion is finished? They will show you with their body language. Remember, for you, the length of time during the emotion will seem long. For them, it’s quick. But they will make eye contact with you when they are finished. They will also give you other non-verbal signals that it’s time for the next question.

Helpful Hint #3 – Don’t Touch Them or Invade Their Personal Space – I’m a hugger and a person who likes to comfort another by touching them. In the setting of a LifeStory interview, it’s a definite “no-no” to touch them. Touching them is just as bad as saying something. It will interrupt the emotion.

Helpful Hint #4 – Don’t Stop the Recording – Many interviewees will apologize as the emotion starts and ask to stop recording the interview. Don’t do it! You will miss the priceless words or audible signs of emotion if you stop the recording. Remember that if you are using digital recording technology, it is easy to take out pieces of the emotion if you choose to later on. You cannot add back in the emotion that you missed after the fact!

Helpful Hint #5 – Keep Your Emotion Controlled – I’m not asking you not to cry (or laugh during joyous emotion). It is normal for you to cry, too. I cry during many of the Lifestories I conduct. What is important to do is to control it. Keep you sniffles and sounds from your mouth to a minimum. Any audible sound from you will be picked up by the microphone. Remember, this is their story, not yours!

Emotion is part of life. Your capturing the LifeStories of your loved ones will involve emotion. You can deal with it in a way that will enhance the value of the LifeStory. Enjoy the journey.

The Feeling of Recording a LifeStory – You Can Feel It, Too!

In an earlier blog post, I wrote “I Now Know Why I Do What I Do” http://tinyurl.com/3eysgls as a passionate reaction to a good movie I watched. Today I feel compelled to share why I think you should record the LifeStories of your loved ones. It’s origins are found in the feelings I get at the end of most every LifeStory interview I conduct.

I find it hard to describe all the feelings that race through my mind and my heart as the final question I ask is answered. That question I ask is, “Do you have any closing comments to leave for future generations?” The interviewee knows these are the words they end with…those closing words of thought and wisdom that future generations will, hopefully, connect with. For some, it is a synopsis of their life’s lessons learned, passionately translated to teach loved ones they might not ever meet. For others, it is a smile and a simple, “I love you.” And yet, for others, it is a joyful smile, thank you, and sigh of relief that their task of sharing their story is complete.

But what is common at the conclusion of most all the LifeStories I conduct is the closing of the eyes and deep breath that acknowledges the sealing of a legacy left for others…a legacy that means much more that money, or property, or any material possession they might pass along.

It’s not just at the end of the interview that I feel the importance of the LifeStory. I get wonderful bits of the feeling as the interview progresses. The fun thing is that it can come at a moment when I least expect it. The best example of this is in one of my favorite LifeStories ever recorded. A clip of that recording is found on my website http://www.lifestoriesalive.com/ (just click on “View Demo” and select “Individual”).  It shows how, in the middle of a moment of great joy, a heartfelt moment of sadness hit the gentleman I was interviewing…and hit him quite unexpectedly. After viewing his emotion, there was no doubt how he felt about his Dad. And for me, there was no doubt how I felt about being the one to bring that to his family.

The good news is that you can experience that feeling, too. Just decide to do a LifeStory for someone you love.

 

What Do I Do With My Family History?

A question very few people address is, “What do I do with my family history now that I have it?” The good news is that you have many choices of what to do with the history. Here are a few:

Choice #1 – Put It On a Shelf for Safe Keeping – Unfortunately, this is the most common thing to do with family archives. Most of us have the box of family photos or video tapes of weddings, birthdays, etc. shoved on a shelf somewhere for safe keeping. While they may be in “safe keeping”, the only productive thing they are doing is collecting dust. Oh, from time to time they are dragged out and reviewed for family occasions, but let’s face it, it is a rare occasion when they ever see the light of day. The unfortunate scenario here is that they are forgotten and could even be damaged by age or improper storage.

For advice on organizing and storing your memorabilia, whether snapshots, film or video, I highly recommend enlisting the help of Lorie Marrero and her team of organizers at The Clutter Diet http://www.clutterdiet.com/. Lorie and her team have helped thousands of people in eighteen countries to affordably get their homes in shape!

Choice #2 – Make it a Ongoing, Living Project – Recording and preserving the LifeStories of your loved ones doesn’t have to be a one-time event. You can make it an ongoing project. In fact, technology helps make this choice a lot of fun. As discussed in previous blog posts, recording devices are easier to use and less expensive than ever before. With the ease of use of Flip Cameras and smart phones like the iPhone, there’s no reason why you can’t bring it to every family occasion and record a few moments. Simply turn it on and ask people how they are feeling or what they think of this occasion. Then upload it to your computer or a family YouTube channel and share with others.

The point here is that capturing LifeStories should be a regular occurrence, recording a little bit at a time. Think of it as a quick video of the birthday party of a child recorded every birthday till they are very old. The difference is that it’s not just for birthdays, it’s for every family occasion.

Choice #3 – Share, Share, Share – Again, technology is your friend here. Becoming the cool family historian can take only 15 minutes a week. Start your own family clip or photo of the week. Store all the photos and video clips on your computer and send out just one photo or a five-minute clip out to your contacts once a week. Many of you are already doing this via Facebook on an irregular basis.

Start a new habit of every Sunday, for instance, sending something out. For Mother’s Day it can be a sweet photo of Mom. For just any week, it could be that photo your brother hates of him being goofy as a kid. Which reminds me, if you are not the one in charge of this project, it’ll be the goofy photo of you that is sent out by your sibling! Alternate photos and video clips; one week a photo and the next week a video clip.

Think of other creative ways of sharing your family’s history and let me know your ideas. I’d like to share them with my LifeStories community. And remember to make it fun!