Kind Words Go a Long Way

Kind words can go a long way. Yesterday, I was having a “so-so” day until late in the evening when a client of mine, Spencer Hayes (name given with permission) http://www.oxfordcommercial.com/our-people/spencer-hayes/, wrote a very kind note regarding the work I did for his family. My entire attitude changed to become more uplifting and positive. Here is his note:

“LifeStories Alive partnered with my family to bring us the greatest gift we could ever have: my parents sharing their stories so that their legacy will continue for many generations.

Mike O’Krent is a uniquely gifted documentarian. But moreover he is an exemplary human being who connects with people on a deep level, and brings out of them the essence of who they are.  The ability to capture all that on video for posterity is rare, and we have been blessed as a family to own the product of his talent.”

I encourage all of you to do as I will now; share a few kind words to someone – to the next person who comes to mind. It’s not hard, won’t take long, and will make you feel good. Thanks, Spencer, for making my day!

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

 

 

End of Life Lesson Learned Today

Just two days ago at around noon I received an email from my friend, Kristi Curry, who has a wonderful business called Survivorship Now http://survivorshipnow.com/. A friend of hers in Katy, Texas named Ben wrote to her saying that his church buddy, Dan (age 49), was just given bad news about his cancer and was advised to call in hospice care immediately. Ben called Kristi to ask for her professional advice to help Dan’s wife organize her life for what was to come. He also said he wanted to videotape Dan’s stories so his two kids would know him better when they grew older. Ben asked Kristi for advise on what questions to ask and how to ask them. That’s when Kristi referred me.

I connected with Ben yesterday via email, then by phone. Ben explained that Dan didn’t have any funds to afford a professional LifeStory and that he was going to do it pro-bono. I don’t know why it happened, but something inside me said I have to do it. I told Ben that I could be there (two and a half hours away) the following morning by 10:30 to conduct the interview, as long as Ben filmed it.

When we arrived at Dan’s home this morning, we were greeted by Dan’s beautiful and gracious wife, Marcina. We set up the camera in Dan’s bedroom and tried to get as much as we could of an interview, but unfortunately, due to the medications he was on, could not record much. What we did record, however, showed what a loving, caring father and husband he was. Rather than coming home without much of anything for Dan’s family, I asked Marcina if she wouldn’t mind being interviewed…to capture Dan’s LifeStories through the stories of his loving wife. She agreed and we filmed about two hours of her smiles, tears and love for her husband. She showed unbelievable bravery and unselfish caring for her husband who was too ill to express his story himself.

By 1:00 PM, we left her home with hugs and well wishes to her for strength during the tough journey ahead that she faced. I arrive back home at around 4:00 PM, exhausted, but glad I had accomplished what I had that day. An hour later Ben called. He said he called to thank me, to be sure I got home okay, and…after a long pause…to tell me someone from his church called an hour ago to say that Dan had just died.

At first I was in a bit of shock. Yesterday, Dan was a total stranger to me. And now, after only knowing he and his wife for a few hours, I feel like an integral part of their lives. The lesson I’ve believe I learned from today’s experience is to share your stories with the ones you love often, to celebrate life at every opportunity you get, and to give unselfishly whenever you can. Had I thought, “It’s been a long week, I’m too tired to drive all the way to Katy early on a Saturday morning, conduct this unpaid interview, then drive all the way back,” I would not have met Dan and his wife. And I am a better man now…because of them.

Thank you Kristi, Ben, Marcina, and especially Dan. May you rest in eternal peace.

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.

“You Don’t Understand”

One would think that if you just heard someone tell you, “You don’t understand”, it would be a negative thing. But when a client of mine told me just that and explained why he said that, I knew it was a much-needed compliment. Let me explain.

I interviewed this client’s parents in Dallas back in May, 2007. His father died about a year later. I called him recently to thank him for referring yet another of his friends to me to have a LifeStory done for their parent(s). I said, “I don’t quite know how to thank you for the numerous referrals you’ve given me.” He said, “You don’t understand. I keep your LifeStory DVDs on my desk at my office. Whenever I am missing Dad, all I have to do is pop in the DVD into my computer and there he is.” He went on to explain that giving me referrals is his gift to his friends so they can experience those memories for themselves.

I was speechless. Little did I know how much those LifeStory DVDs meant to him. I say this not to pat myself on the back, but to remind each of you the importance of recording the memories of your loved ones…whether you do it yourself or hire a professional to do it for you.  If you want to do it yourself but don’t know where to begin, please call me. I’d be glad to help you get started. It’s too important to ignore.

I hope you can now say, as I did that day, “Now I understand.”

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.

 

Dealing With Death

Dealing with death is a subject that I never wanted to address, even during and after the deaths of my father and grandfather in 1997. I’m glad I have found a way to not just deal with it, but to realize its place and role in life. I have done this through two areas of personal experience.

The first area that has helped me deal with death is through my work as a Hospice Austin volunteer. I must admit that two years ago when I signed up for the extensive training to be a Hospice Austin volunteer, I did it because I thought I might get some business from it. Instead of getting any business from it, I have received much more. I have learned an appreciation for the process of death and how it can be a beautiful thing. In those cases when a loved one has time to prepare for the inevitable, the things that are said and done are priceless. Think about it, if you are blessed to have some time to say goodbye and thank the people in your life, how would you do it? I’ve seen some of the most wonderful things from both the patient and the loved ones they address.

I was reminded of this over the weekend. I had a last minute, “11th Hour” request from Hospice Austin to go to the hospital to relieve a caregiver who was sitting by her grandmother’s side as she was going through her journey. While the patient was unconscious the entire time I was there, I felt the thanks and sacrifice this wonderful granddaughter was giving her grandmother. She asked Hospice Austin to have a volunteer there so her grandmother would not be alone just in case she died in her absence. While the patient did not die while I was there, I felt good in giving this  courageous granddaughter some relief in the middle of the night, so she could address her personal needs at home. As I sat with the patient, she seemed at peace during the final path of her journey.

The second area that has taught me a new perspective in dealing with death is my work with LifeStories Alive. Over the years and on a few occasions, I have received a call from a child of an interviewee to let me know that Mom or Dad has died. What happened the first time I received such a call has happened every time since. I am immediately flushed with sadness, then a smile comes across my face, knowing that their stories and essence of life has been captured and preserved forever. The next thing I do, and I do this every time, is put in the DVD of their LifeStory, watch for a while, smile a bit and cry a bit.

I have discovered  that death is all about life, if we give it a chance to reveal itself. And while not everyone wants to share the stories of their journey, when they do, it’s truly a beautiful thing.