Tips for interviewing family members

23 May 2024

When it comes to tracing family members, perhaps the most valuable resource may be family members themselves. Living relatives can provide unparalleled insight, bringing your family tree to life with first-hand experiences.

Interviewing older relatives can unlock all sorts of secrets, but it’s a task that should be approached with sensitivity. Some memories can be painful, while others may be distorted by the passage of time.

The best way to overcome these challenges is with careful planning. From asking the right questions to keeping the conversation on topic, here are our top tips for interviewing family members.

Decide who to interview

As obvious as it sounds, your first job is to decide who to interview. Have in mind your oldest living relative as they’re likely to have memories going back the furthest. These family members may also be nearing the end of their lives, making it important to preserve their experiences while you have the chance.

That said, there are times when your oldest living relative may not be a suitable candidate. Don’t try to force an interview with someone who is no longer capable due to physical or cognitive decline. This will be upsetting for everyone involved, and may result in misleading information being obtained.

Organise the interview

Planning ahead is vital if you want to maximise the effectiveness of your interview. Before you begin, consider the following:

  • When and where? Try to choose a time and place that are convenient for the interviewee. For elderly relatives, their home is probably the best location. Make sure you leave enough time for an in depth conversation, but remember that a long interview can be tiring for an older person.
  • How are you going to record the interview? It’s a good idea to film or record your conversation as this will allow you to speak freely without stopping to take notes. However, it’s important to check that the interviewee is comfortable with being recorded.
  • What questions are you going to ask? Send a copy of these questions to the interviewee in advance. This will give them time to think about their answers before you meet. 

Ask the right questions

Now for the really important part. Choosing the right questions can make the difference between a pleasant chat and an illuminating interview. Try to be creative with what you ask. Aim for a mixture of generic “fact-finding” questions, and more personal memory-based questions. Examples include:

  • When were you born?
  • Did you have any siblings?
  • What did your parents do for a living?
  • Who is the oldest relative you can remember?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • Talk about a smell or a taste that reminds you of childhood
  • What were your ambitions as a young man/woman?
  • Describe a typical day when you were a teenager
  • Tell me about your first job

By asking questions that evoke strong feelings, you can uncover all sorts of hidden gems.  Perhaps the memory of a favourite childhood food reminds your relative of the aunt who used to cook it. Maybe they remember eating it with cousins you didn’t even know existed. What began as a conversation about shepherd’s pie could end up revealing an entirely new branch of your family tree!

It’s also important to be flexible. Plan your questions in advance but don’t treat them like a script. If an interesting avenue opens up, don’t be afraid to take a diversion.

Think outside the box!

Don’t forget that genealogy is supposed to be fun. An interview with a family member should never feel like an interrogation. The more you can do to make the experience enjoyable, the more likely your relative is to open up to you.

Props are a great way to spice up an interview. Use any photographs and objects you’ve collected so far to add some variety to the conversation. If your relative is up to it, you could even take them to a museum and see if anything sparks their memory (although don’t insult them by heading straight to the dinosaur exhibit!). 

Manage your expectations

Family history is a puzzle with no easy solution. Interviewing a family member can provide fascinating insights, but don’t expect one person to have all the answers. 

If you’ve exhausted all of your options and you’re still stuck, it might be time to call in the experts. Using the latest techniques, our team can uncover the hidden treasures you might have missed. Get in touch today to find out more.

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