How To Interview a Relative

Tips for Uncovering Personal Family History

Getty / Uwe Umstaetter

Getting relatives to share their stories isn't always easy. Follow these step-by-step ideas for a successful family history interview!

  1. Schedule a time in advance. This gives everyone a chance to prepare.
  2. Prepare a list of questions beforehand and either share them with your relative, or give them an idea of what you want to cover. Check out 50 Questions for Family History Interviews for ideas.
  3. Bring several notepads and pens to the interview. If you plan to make a recording, be sure to have a tape player, digital recorder or smart phone on which to record the interview, plus extra tapes, memory cards, chargers or batteries, as appropriate for your recording device.
  4. Take good notes and make sure you record your name, the date, the place the interview is being conducted and the interviewee.
  5. Begin with a question or topic that you know will elicit a reply, such as a story you have heard her tell in the past.
  6. Ask questions which encourage more than simple 'yes' or 'no' answers. Try to elicit facts, feelings, stories and descriptions.
  7. Show interest. Take an active part in the dialogue without dominating it. Learn to be a creative listener.
  1. Use props whenever possible. Old photographs, favorite old songs and treasured items may bring memories flooding back.
  2. Don't push for answers. Your relative may not wish to speak ill of the dead or may have other reasons for not wanting to share. Move on to something else.
  3. Use your prepared questions as a guideline, but don't be afraid to let your relative go off on a tangent. They may have many things to say that you never thought to ask!
  4. Don't interrupt or attempt to correct your relative; this can end an interview in a hurry!
  5. When you are done, be sure to thank your relative for her time.

Tips for a Successful Family History Interview

  1. Put your relative at ease by telling them that they will have a chance to see and approve of anything that you write before you share it with others.
  2. Keep the interview length to no more than 1 to 2 hours at a stretch. It's tiring for both you and for the person being interviewed. This is supposed to be fun!
  3. Consider preparing a transcript or written report as a tangible thank you to your relative for her participation.
  4. If the relative and other participants agree, setting up a recorder in the corner of a room while sitting around a dinner table may help to get family stories flowing. This approach has worked well for many relatives in my own family!