Types of Questions to Interview Family Members
When preparing to interview family members about their memories, think about the kind of questions you want to ask beforehand. In addition to thinking about the information you want to elicit from your relative, give some thought to how you construct your questions.
We can ask “yes-no” questions to confirm things we already know and open-ended questions to solicit new information. So, what role do leading questions play in our interview?
Any journalism student can tell you what’s wrong with a leading question. Such queries are the forbidden fruit of interviewing techniques because they make assumptions. They influence the interviewee’s thought processes, and by extension, their answers. Open-ended questions, i.e., questions that don’t make any assumptions about the intended answer and don’t seek to influence the flow of the intended answer, are the interviewer’s bread and butter.
Consider the following examples of questions one might ask one’s grandmother.
Yes-No question: Do you remember the time you grandpa for the first time? (Likely responses include: “Yes!” followed by a pregnant pause.) On the other hand, it you’re interviewing a relative that tires easily, it might be advantageous to allow them to confirm information with a simple yes or no: Did you marry Grandpa at the First Baptist church?
Open-ended question: What do you remember about the first time you met grandpa? (Likely responses vary and could even include the ubiquitous, “It was a dark and stormy night…”) If you are going to interview family members that are talkative and gregarious and you have scheduled plenty of time and have back up batteries for your recorder, this might be fine. Relax and enjoy your time with a person that matters to you.
Leading-question: Tell me about how you met and fell in love grandpa. (Likely responses include a love story.) Often this is an effective way of interviewing a family member.
So why is the journalist’s bane acceptable—even recommended, for the family story writer?
Well, first, we’re not journalists.
We’re not preserving an unbiased records of events. It’s perfectly acceptable for us to have an agenda. If your grandparents have been married for 60 years and are not constantly at each others throats, chances are they have a beautiful love story to share. You might want to facilitate your grandmother’s story telling by asking a leading question.
(Unless it’s a key component of their coming together, even if they did meet on a dark and stormy night, that detail might not matter. )
That doesn’t mean you should avoid yes-or-no or open-ended questions. They will probably come up in due course when you’re discussing the past with your loved ones. However, when you have an agenda or when there is a particular story or “truth” you want to preserve, it’s fine to lead your loved ones a little to get them headed down Memory Lane. Any questions are valid, as long as you are both enjoying the stroll.
© Laura Hedgecock 2013
For more about interviewing family members, I recommend MyHeritage.com’s “10 Tips for Interviewing Family Members.”