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Life History Interview

Beginning the Interview
Areas to Inquire
---The history of parents and grandparents
---Early childhood
---School Years
---Adult Life
---Family Information
The Importance of Reflection

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The purpose of getting a life history on a person is to be able to "paint a picture" of who they are. The information from the history should not just be a random collection of facts. The history should be an account of the person's life story, including important themes in their life that reflect the development of their personality and their relationships with other people.

While doing an interview, pay careful attention to how the person is responding to your questions, and always be respectful of his/her privacy. If it seems like the person is uncomfortable discussing some aspect of his or her life, don't press for an answer. Move on to the next part of the interview.

Beginning the Interview

It is best to begin the interview by giving the person free range to tell their life story. Where they start their story and how they tell it will reveal what immediately strikes them as important. So begin the interview with the following instructions:

"I'd like to find out about your life history. Could you tell me about it? Describe it to me as if you were telling me your life story."

Most people will leave out certain details. If the details seem important, use open-ended questions to probe for more information, such as

"And then what happened?" or "What did you do after that?"

We also want to find out about how people thought and felt about what happened to them. If they omit this information, use such questions as

"How did you feel about that?" or "What did you think about that at the time?"

Areas to Inquire

People will also leave out certain topic areas that are important. You will need to ask questions about this areas, but always try to do so in an open-ended way that allows people to express themselves freely, according to what strikes them as important. You should get information about all of the following areas. Start with the first open-ended question, and work your way down to the following questions, if needed.

1. The history of parents and grandparents:

2. Early childhood (before school):

3. School Years:

4. Adolescence:
5. Adult Life (including college):
6. Family Information (if you didn't already get this info):

The Importance of Reflection

It is best if the interview doesn't turn into a "question and answer" session where you ask questions and they give short answers. It's difficult to do, but try to turn the interview into a smoothly flowing discussion. Use the technique known as "reflection" to encourage a person to talk more about something. Simply reflect back to the person some important aspect of what they have just said. You may simply repeat the exact words the person used, or you may sometimes add in some thought or feeling that you detected in what the person said. Reflections are NOT in the form of a question. If you can do this effectively, you won't have to bombard the person with all of the questions listed above. Here are some examples:

Person: "My father and I used to play ball in the backyard. We had a lot of fun with that."
You: "You and your father had some fun times."

Person: "When he said that to me, it really annoyed me. I couldn't believe my best friend would say something like that."
You: "He could really get you angry with his remarks."

Other examples of open-ended reflections might be:

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