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!

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.

 

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.