Life stories - Time to Listen

Are you worried that in these turbulent times you may lose a loved one; someone in your family, your circle of friends, a member of your community? For those of us left behind, when the edge of the grief becomes bearable, we might also realise the loss of our loved one's story.

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The world they inhabited has gone and we regret not knowing enough about them, their achievements, what made them laugh and cry, what made them get up in the morning and do whatever they did. 

Hopefully that hasn’t happened to you yet. And now is a very special chance – an opportunity, to hear those stories, record them and honour the person we love. This is a Time to Listen.

For me, Veronica, it was after I lost my brother in his early 40s, that I started a biography service in a hospice to record the stories of those people who were unwell – a service still going strong after 25 years. For Neil, it was his father recovering from a period when life was touch and go that was the catalyst for them to go to quiet pubs and tea houses, and record extraordinary conversations about his father’s life. In time it became clear that the gift was not just for Neil but for the grandchildren and all those who come after – who will hear for themselves Peter’s voice and stories. 

Here are our top five tips to record a loved one’s story.

1.     Take up the role of a journalist - not one who is searching for sensationalism or conflict, but to hear the ordinary stories of life. Set aside your own opinions, be truly inquisitive and listen attentively. As we say, ‘Listen till your ears bleed!’

Deepen the conversation by remaining curious, open, and non-judgemental. Use your imagination to empathise; what would it have been like to be them, there, at that time, having had their previous experiences, and not having the benefit of knowing how things would turn out?

The difference between interviewing for biography and interviewing for journalism however, is who owns the story. In a biography, at all times, the person telling their story has the control. They approve the edits, delete what they want to, add what they want to and give approval for what is shared and to whom.

2.     Remember this is not a therapy session – even though the eventual outcome may be therapeutic. You will be asking people to tell their story and their word is final. What they say to you is confidential, i.e., you don’t share it with anyone else, until they give you permission to do so – this includes people who may be assisting with editing/transcribing.

Recording audio or video, can be fabulous, but minimise your own voice. Simply ask the question, then sit back and shut up! Be comfortable with silence – most people tolerate silence for 1 - 6 seconds before wanting to fill the gap. Instead, count to ten in your head and wait – silently.

3.     Let the story flow: Use open-ended questions, i.e., ones that start with who, what, when, and how. Use ‘why’ sparingly as it can come across as being asked to justify. Keep it personal to them; ‘… what was happening for you at that time?’ 

Follow the teller: If you feel there are many threads to follow, take a note and come back to the ideas mentioned. 

Use phrases like, ‘Tell me more about that?’ 

Make linkages to other things the speaker has mentioned, if appropriate. 

Maybe have a photo album to hand to jog memories. If your person has short-term memory loss, this may be an opportunity to record a story from long ago.

Suggested questions to get you started are: 

  • What's your earliest memory?
  • What was it like growing up?
  • What did you enjoy?
  • What do you remember from your school days?
  • Who was your best friend? What did you play?
  • Tell me about holidays as a child
  • What was it like when you were a teenager?
  • What's your fondest memory?

Build through life

  • How/when did you meet (significant other)?

What was it like when ...?

  • You left home/got your own home?
  • You started ... ?
  • You got married?
  • Became a parent?
  • What was working as .. during ... like?

 4.     Agree what you are going to do with this. Do you want to make a book with photos for future generations? Or an audio recording that people can listen to? Or create videos to share? Each medium will have different advantages and disadvantages, so agree your expectations at the beginning. E.g.,  I recorded the stories of people who had a terminal illness. I agreed with my interviewees to make a book including photos, to be shared with their loved ones. Whatever your decision, this certainty gives safety for those telling their story. 

5.     Don’t forget the practical things: Ensure there is a quiet, undisturbed time for you to talk. Talking about oneself can be exciting and exhausting. If the person you’re interviewing is elderly, they may want to do many shorter conversations. Always be guided by the wishes of the interviewee. 

Practice using any technology: You don’t want to do an hour’s interview and find you hadn’t pushed record.

Make sure you have pen and paper to hand to capture (silently) any follow up questions, note any dates or record the spelling of names.

 If you would like to know more, simply email us: veronica.lysaght@gmail.com and neil@enablingcatalysts.com

Veronica Lysaght, ACC

Certified Coach and Author, Leading with Humanity

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