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“Over the course of the millennia, all these ancestors in your tree, generation upon generation, have come down to this moment in time—to give birth to you. There has never been, nor will ever be, another like you. You have been given a tremendous responsibility. You carry the hopes and dreams of all those who have gone before. Hopes and dreams for a better world. What will you do with your time on this Earth? How will you contribute to the ongoing story of humankind?” ~ Laurence Overmire

How to Interview A Family Elder

Posted by Tonya Keitt Kalule

Often times it is not easy to get people to share their stories.  You are conducting this interview because you want to know about those people in your family that has paved the way for you.  You want to understand their struggles, their pain, and their worries.  You also want to know the times in their lives that are closes to their hearts. Those things that brought them peace and those things that brought them joy.

So taking the time to spend with the elders in your family shows them that they matter.  Not just on Christmas or their birthday, but everyday. What better way to do that than to get them talking about when they we young, when they were growing up, their first job, and the things that has brought them to this place in their lives.  As you hear the stories be patient and embrace all that you learn.

The list below will get you started on this journey and I hope that you will share some of the wonderful things that you learn along the way.

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Schedule a time in advance for about an hour, no more than two hours.  It is a chance that they may give you  more time, but let it be their decision to talk more.

1.  Have a list of question  written up and it would be a good idea to give them a copy of the questions before your visit. This way they have had a moment to prepare and think of their memories and what they want to share.

2.  Bring a tape record with extra tapes and batteries, and let them know before hand that you would like to tape the interview, so as you don't miss a word of their story.  Do Not depend on the recorder, have your pen and paper to take really good notes, just in case something goes wrong.

3.  Ask about some of the stories that you have heard in the past that is relative to this person, even if those specific questions are not on the interview questionnaire.

4.  Make sure you are asking questions that give you more than a yes or no answer. You want to know how they felt, what they were thinking, and any emotion and reactions that may have taken place surrounding the answer to your question.

5.  Most importantly LISTEN. Do not be thinking of your next question as they are talking, be an active listener, and let them do the talking.

6.  If they would like to, go through the old photo albums, the pictures on wall or the tables, find out who those photos are taken of and what was going on at the time.  When you let them tell you their story they will enjoy the fact that you are interested and will enjoy reliving those special moments.  You don't want it to feel like work.  Don't interrupt or correct them while they are talking, you want that story to flow. When you interrupt or correct it gives the person the feeling that you are not really interested in them but what you want from them.

7.  When you see that they are uncomfortable with a subject, don't push.  Give them a moment to regroup or think of how they want to express themselves, but you don't want to push or try to come back to the question as though you are trying to trick them, let it go and move on.
Schedule a time in advance for about an hour, no more than two hours.  It is a chance that they may give you  more time, but let it be their decision to talk more.

8.  Don't forget to thank them for their time and for what they have shared with you, a piece of them.


When you finish and get back to  your desk to transcribe the notes from this interview, I suggest print that you print it on  some really nice paper, such as the many stationary styles that are made for ink jet printers, and give them a copy.

This is merely a thank you for their time.

Job Well Done!

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