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How to Conduct ‘Trauma-Informed’ Life Story Interviews

Chronicling your family history is bound to lead to laughter and reminiscing, but not all memories are rosy. In the course of any life there will be painful chapters. Your family member may have endured a difficult childhood, a tragic loss or some other crushing disappointment. In this post, I share nine tips based on own my experience to ensure your personal history interview is a positive one.

I first learned about the discomfort that can arise when talking to loved ones about their difficult past by talking to my own father. When I began collecting historical nuggets about his life, I first tried having an informal interview with him during a family gathering. When I asked him to tell me what it was like living in the deep south, his mood shifted from pleasant to somber. I still recall how he refused to answer.

My father grew up in Alabama during Jim Crow segregation. I had heard him share bits and pieces of his childhood before and he would often get upset, so I knew better than to press him at the gathering. While mingling with the other guests I overheard a family friend talking about cooking and how good she was at preparing souse meat, which consists of various pig extremities made into a loaf. Remembering that my father used to make that disgusting dish when I was young, I circled back to where he was seated and offered a less upsetting remix of my original question.

“Daddy, Mrs. Blue says that she can cook souse meat better than you. Is that true?” Mrs. Blue never made such a claim, but my slightly embellished question got a rise out of him. He launched into a good-natured trash-talking match with Mrs. Blue over who was better at making that a familiar dish of black southerners who knew who to make do with what they had. It wasn’t long before their banter turned into rich storytelling. Soon my father was serving up generous servings of his life story, including his views on the harsh realities of a black man growing up in the south.

When interviewing people for their life stories, especially those who have experienced trauma, it helps to know what questions to ask and how to ask them. It is also important to know when to consider another approach or leave well enough alone.

Social worker Theresa Little calls it being ‘trauma informed.’ It is interacting in a way that establishes comfort, fosters trust and shows empathy and respect for what the person you are interviewing is going through.

“Anything can be triggering,” says Little, who works with Dallas, Texas-area clients who have experienced trauma as children and adults. “It can be a smell, a color or a memory.”

George Keaton Jr., executive director of Remembering Black Dallas, a nonprofit that preserves local African American history through oral history interviews and other activities, recommends that interviewers be observant.

“Study the person’s body language, monitor their actions,” he says. “Move onto something else if a question makes them uncomfortable.”

Keaton recalls how his great-uncle reacted when he tried to interview him about his military service during World War I.

“He practically went into a catatonic state,” Keaton said. “I knew right then that I needed to back off.”  Keaton knew that his great uncle was a skilled sharpshooter and one of many black men who volunteered to enlist for service during the war. But he knew less about the dehumanizing treatment that black soldiers had to endure until his great-uncle’s reaction compelled him to do more research.

“They had to do all kinds of horrific things,” said Keaton, who was later able to put his great-uncle’s experience into historical context. “Many of them had to do the cleanup work, including cleaning up the remains of dead soldiers and digging mass graves to throw them in. My uncle probably had to do some of that. Whatever it was, it was too hard for him to talk about.”

Since everyone’s life experience is different, there is no foolproof way of knowing which interview questions may be triggering or off limits, but there are ways you can learn how to conduct life story interviews with extra care.

Here are nine tips for conducting ‘trauma-informed’ interviews:

  1. Research your interviewee. Learn what you can in advance about the person you will interview. That includes relatives and close friends. Advance knowledge of them can be helpful in shaping questions and structuring the interview.
  2. Meet in a comfortable place. If possible, let the subject choose where they want to be interviewed. Wherever you meet, make sure that it is conducive to having an informal conversation and not an interrogation.
  3. Explain the process. Don’t launch straight into asking questions. To set the person at ease, start by explaining what will take place during the interview. Find out whether they have any questions.
  4. Prepare questions in advance. Prepare a list of questions to help you get started but allow the conversation to take a natural flow. Listen closely to what the person is saying and know when to draw your questions from the conversation and not the list.
  5. Ask open-ended questions. Avoid asking questions that invite yes or no answers and offer questions that allow the subject to be fully expressive.
  6. Check in with the subject’s emotions. Ask questions that invite your subject to explore their thoughts and feelings. How did they feel about a certain experience? What was going through their minds when it happened? Responses to these questions will produce more textured storytelling and not just a retelling of events.
  7. Show empathy. It’s okay for interviewers to show compassion during the sessions. Offer condolences when the subject speaks of a loss or express sympathy if they speak of other challenges. Showing genuine compassion engenders trust.
  8. Don’t be afraid to go there. People who have had traumatic experiences may want to talk about what they have been through. You won’t know unless you ask and there is a respectful way to do it. Ask permission first. Find out whether it is okay to ask questions about a subject that may be sensitive. They will let you know if they are ready share.
  9. Know when to pivot. If an interview subject becomes distressed over your questions, switch to another subject or offer to take a break. Never press them to continue.

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