Directed Conversations – What we do when we’re interested in others.
It’s easy when we’re fascinated with what they have to say.
Are you prepared with all the questions that you’re going to ask and do you have a good expectation of what answers you’re going to get? Are you there with an agenda to entrap and find something out? If your answer is “Yes” then what you’re preparing is an interview, maybe even a hard hitting interview!
Journalists interview, we have conversations!
If your answer is “No” to those questions you’re not recording an interview, you’re here for a conversation. If you wish to ask engaging questions, wanting to help someone relax and open up, to share a life and reveal things that you have no idea of. If you want to be surprised and touch with real humanity, you have to have a conversation. And if you take that conversation down the particular rabbit holes that will be discovered it’s simply a directed conversation but a conversation all the same. Two people on equal footing having a chat about specifically one persons life.
Most people think of sitting down for a recorded conversation as an interview but that is not what we are talking about here. Sure the conversation may well be biased towards one person and the other may be engaging with many questions but it’s still a conversation and that attitude is what will work best in helping a person relax and open up. This is not about you, this is about them and you need to want to explore everything that they know with an attitude of genuine interested of their life. When they tell a story you must want to know more out of interest not just to have the answer to your question so as to tick it off your list. You must really want to know about their life.
The best preparation you can have is a general knowledge of the times and life of the person you’re to sit down with. A little history is a good thing here, not just their personal history but their times and culture also. With a general understanding of the greater history when an unexpected statement is made you can then ask an engaging question to either explore that specific incident or take the conversation in a new direction.
This leads to the preparation. In preparation you don’t want to have all the answers, it’s best for you to be surprised so the conversation sounds natural and an exploration of a life as it will be for the listener. It’s important to do some general homework so as to have an overview of their life:
- Family members, parents, sibling, grand/children, spouse
- Training and career overview
- Major interests in life
- Future goals
Ask some questions of family members about the important aspects of the individual and greater family. Get to know the “lay of the land”. Family members will know of the general life and times but they often don’t know of the details, that is what we want to discover in the recorded conversation. Note down the general information in a loosely chronological order to be marked off once covered.
Review the general prompts laid out in episode 7 for a few more ideas remembering all the time that it is not detail you want here(that is for the conversation) you only want a 50,000 ft overview of their life.
Your attitude is the single most important aspect of how well the conversation will develop and progress. Additional to an upbeat friendly attitude with genuine interest, I believe you need to have one single dominate attitude – Empathy.
A little personal philosophy…
I feel that we can relate to people in several different ways, some are positive, some are less so and to conduct a great directed conversation it’s important to relate in a way that allows the individual to feel relaxed and open to share without any concerns of judgement or opinion. To actually feel encouraged to openly reveal even the difficult and private parts of their life.
Five Ways to Relate to Others
- Contempt – An attitude that a person is beneath consideration but deserving scorn
- Pity – An attitude of superiority over others misfortune
- Sympathy – Emotional connection to the sorrow of another’s misfortune
- Empathy – Ability to understand and relate to another’s feelings
- Compassion – Understand another’s feelings and having the ability to assist
The first two, Contempt and Pity disregard the other person and would quickly be distructive to the conversation. If you bring these attitudes to the conversation don’t even start the project as you will be bringing too much of your own baggage with you. It would be best to ask someone to take your place in this case.
With Sympathy due to the nature of your emotional engagement you will find it difficult to maintain a suitable distance from any emotional upset, preventing you from remaining an objective observer. The danger with sympathy is, it’s too easy to become involved in the drama of their life experiences. This can be difficult if these are shared experiences but not impossible.
Empathy is where you can understand and relate to all the aspects of a persons life but remain slightly distant recognising that this is their life and not yours. There is no emotional relationship to their stories but you realise, allow and encourage them to be deeply emotionally connected to the events of their life. When a story is told you can relate to it, as if it was in your life but as it is their life you remain emotionally distant from it. You are fully connected to the story but you don’t buy into it.
Compassion involves great understanding similar to empathy but encourages you to act so as to assist in improving the situation for them. Possibly there may be a place for this but that is not the purpose of the recorded conversation. We want to gather the information without being distracted by what else could be done to assist.
By maintaining empathy you connect with someone but remain in your position as someone with genuine interest in their life. This creates a profoundly relaxed attitude in the person to feel that they are safe to express anything, without fear of ridicule of judgement, leading to them opening up in ways that will surprise you.
On the case of opinion… It’s best not to have one. Your task is to engage, ask and listen with genuine interest in their life. Having an opinion is not your roll and should be left out, however interest is the opposite. A fascination to explore all aspects of their life will show your interest and encourage them to open up even more and when a difficult time is mentioned, you’ll have no opinion but instead an interest in how they dealt with the situation encouraging them to reveal even more detail. Even though you’re sitting there with someone it’s as if you’re reading a story of their life where you are facinated but you know it’s only a story so you’re not emotionally involved.
Unlike the journalistic style of having a long list of prepared questions the recorded Life Story conversation is a rambling wander through someone’s life where questions will appear due to the development of the story. General themes can be thought of before hand but questions can not be prepared in advance. However, there are some general guidelines that should be considered when engaged in the conversation. All of them should be considered through the filter of being empathic at all times.
Update – With new understanding I’ve now added an additional to create 6 Ways to Relate to Others
Questions or Themes
- Ask engaging open ended questions – require more than a yes/no answer
- Think of the audience – ask questions that add to their knowledge
- Outline beforehand the general points of their life that you have an interest in
- Ask what they would like to talk about
- Pause after difficult questions to create silence, prompting a response
- Listen and engage with what they are saying
- Bring enthuistic energy to the conversation
- Ask about times and situations that causes them to tell stories or anicdotes
- Ask for additional information regarding previously mentioned points – take notes
- Lean in occasionally looking at them – engage with body language
- Use the last few words in their statement to ask an engaging question
- Respect issues that they ask not to be discuss
- Develop questions based around Who, What, When, Why & How
- Have photos and documents handy to discuss
Engage and enjoy.
Initially the conversation will be somewhat stilted as you both settle into a rhythm and forget about the recorder. This is natural and as you both become comfortable the conversation will improve. Start with simple easy aspects of their life. Fortunately childhood is chronologically first and most often easiest to discuss, so the perfect place to commence.
Throughout the entire conversation it’s important to maintain interest. If either of you start to become tired, end the current conversation and return after a break or on another occasion. Don’t force the conversation. It’s better to leave it for the moment and recover some energy to then return a little later with vitality.
It’s a conversation and it’s important that you reveal yourself also. Show your humanity with the questions and comments you make. Show your pleasure, sadness and joy when appropriate. Contribute to the conversation to maintain the flow and exchange between you. Remember not to dominate them, it’s their story after all but we also want to know a little about you and if you do overdo it, your excessive comments can be removed in the editing process. A good belly laugh and friendly banter when appropriate are some of the best forms of engagement that helps everyone to relax and flow with the conversation.
It’s best to leave the ‘difficult questions’ until you have relaxed and settled in to the conversation. It will take a while(a couple of hours) to win someone’s confidence that you are understanding and not judgemental. Then as they feel comfortable because of the relationship you have developed, they will open up to share the most difficult times of their life. Great gifts come with great respect.
If the conversation is conducted with a human touch, real interest and empathy as has been laid out here, both of you will have a great time and the listeners of the Life Story will feel as though they have been simply listening in on a conversation between two people about someone’s life.
- Ask family for a general overview and note the significant aspects of their life
- Mention to them that you would like to record their life story to start them thinking
- Consider and note the aspects of their life that you find interesting
Do you think that preparing without formal questions is the correct method?
Leave a comment under this post and let us know your thoughts.
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