Episode 28 : You Can’t Make Someone Tell Their Story

by Ian

in Conversation, Interview, Podcast, Sharing Stories

How to help someone talk about things they don’t want to


You can't force the conversation via Flickr

It’s an oft asked question. How do I get someone to talk and reveal something that they just refuse to talk about?

This is not just for us and our desire for the stories of someone’s life but it’s also the same for finding out who batted the ball through the window or how did the political sensitive documents come into the hands of the enemy. How do you get someone to talk about something if they don’t want to?

Ultimately, when push comes to shove, if despite the most severe ramifications, someone doesn’t want to speak, there is nothing that can be done. Secret agencies and thugs around the world have always used torture in attempts to achieve these ends and are still thwarted by people who will make mortal sacrifices in order not to reveal what they know. If in the most severe of situations people can remain silent how would we help someone to open up that we care about and don’t wish to cause distress? We can actually take some ideas from the world of espionage and psychology to help us with the winning of confidence. Whether it be when a spy infiltrates a group, or the good cop, bad cop routine or simply when someone feels comfortable enough to talk to their therapist, in each case they have been won over to revealing information to someone they trust.

Unlike the world of force, coercion and inquisition we are approaching these topics with compassion, with an interest in understanding things without causing any distress.

I’ve had the good fortune of having some conversations where people open up for the first time in their lives about topics and in my experience it will only happen if they are prepared to share and feel comfortable, particularly if it’s a sensitive topic.

There are several reasons why someone will feel comfortable to open up and share difficult to express topics.

Empathy for my life story

Empathy helps them share

  • Comfortable with the relationship – mutual respect
  • Knowing that what is said is clearly understood
  • Environment that fosters memories and discussion
  • Respect and non judgement
  • Clear understanding of a non threatening agenda

Not all of these points need to be achieved but depending on the personality, topic and emotional baggage a variety of these will assist in help them to express the subject.

Understand and relate to the them with empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the situation of another person, without personally emoting with the experience that they have had. To understand deeply the joy or sadness of their story, without feeling joy or sadness but simply relate to the story as if it’s being told from a film or book. You understand but are not involved emotionally. Buying into the emotions is sympathy and disables your ability to discuss the topic from a neutral point of view, whereas empathy enables you to relate and be deeply connected to the stories while still remaining on task as someone directing the conversation because your not emotionally involved.

By having and showing empathy with a person’s story they will feel relaxed and confident to know that you’re involved, understanding and non judgemental of the stories being told, helping them to open up and share as they know they are on safe ground.

How to be empathic and express it

Generally descriptions of empathy are – The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s all well and good to feel empathy for the story that is being told but it’s possibly even more important to be able to communicate that empathy to the other person. This will give them the confidence that you understand the emotional content of what they are saying and help them to know that they can express whatever they choose without concern.

To be empathetic

  • Listen – Shut up the self talk and answer development and just Listen!
  • Self awareness of your own biases, values and prejudices and put them to one side – be neutral
  • Genuine interest and understanding in what is being told
  • Know some of the back story
  • Respect their points especially if you comment inappropriately
  • Have an attitude of fascination with their story
  • Take time to build connection

Expressing empathy

  • Ask questions and comments to show that you’re listening
  • Your opinions and experiences of a topic can be used with caution to connect
  • Listen intently to express that what they say is important
  • Expressing non-verbals including body language and facial expressions
  • Mirroring with conversation, body language and personal mannerisms
  • Don’t minimise their experiences with off the cuff expressions i.e. Everything is fine, you’ll get over it, etc
  • Give them space in the discussion. Remain silent after asking a difficult question
  • Take time to evolve a relationship that expresses empathy
  • When the topic is being discussed do not interrupt the natural flow of storytelling
  • Share something of yourself relevant to a challenging topic

Genuine Interest in their story

As Dale Carnegie said in How to Win Friends and Influence People“Become genuinely interested in other people.”

Everyone has some interesting topics to talk of and if they know that you have a genuine interest in what they have to say they will spend more time and effort in expressing what they have to say. This helps them to open up and build better and more interesting stories for you and the listener to enjoy. If they are starting to drift into less interesting topics ask questions or make statements that show that you have been listening and would like to know more or other things that you (and the listeners) will find interesting. There should always be a sense of anticipation from you that the next subject or story may have a gem in amongst it. Surprisingly there often is. If you are from outside of the immediate family you may be missing the importance of some topics and even if what is being said seems inconsequential, it may be significant to family. This is where having an overview of their life is invaluable.

Genuinely listening is the single most important aspect of recording someone’s Life Story. Most people don’t listen, they just take turns to speak. By actively listening they’ll know that you care about what they say and will feel comfortable to share more and more detail as your relationship develops. A measure of, if you are really listening is, can your repeat what the other person previously said if the conversation is interrupted at any point?

Your comments and questions are to solicit more information from them but also to add some of your personality to the recording. By also revealing some aspects of your life that relates to the topic being discussed you will be showing them that you care and understand where they are coming from. If they understand that you have had some similar experiences they may choose to open up about their stories.

Take time to build and express empathy using all the points laid out above, laughing and crying, kidding and pausing where appropriate, all the time showing respect and fascination for their story without a hint of personal opinion towards their life experience. From this will come a respect for you, that they are safe to express anything they choose and just maybe they may mention things they have never mentioned to anyone else.

Props to Assist in connecting with telling stories

When delving into the difficult subjects of someone’s life, changing the dynamic of the conversation can create the opportunities for them to open up and reveal information that they may not be prepared to share in normal situations. It’s for this reason that having someone outside of the immediate family conducting the conversation can open opportunities as they won’t bring any family baggage with them. Other things that may assist are:

  • Place them in an environment that supports their story
  • Travel to the place where the story occurred
  • Consider with them items that remind them of the time i.e. Photos, films, documents, bric-a-brac…
  • Meet with contemporaries of the experiences i.e. Reunions, clubs, discussions…
  • Remove them from the normal recording environment i.e. Bar, museum, long drive…

The environment and props that are used will assist them to be reminded of the situations that you want to ask about. They may bring up emotions or prompt connection with long ago memories but that will only start the process in them of remembering, it will not cause them to speak of those times, that will only happen if an empathetic relationship of trust has developed between you. Then with the jog of their memory started, a well placed question or statement could cause a flood of fascinating stories.

Or not… Ultimately, it’s up to them.


  • What is the topic that is causing the issues with sharing
  • Develop a shared understanding that you have no opinion but only find the topic interesting
  • Develop connection and mutual respect
  • Create an environment that supports discussing the topic
  • Allow for them to share whatever they choose without interruption

Have you found some methods to help people discuss topics that they find challenging? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Use some of the ideas in the free e-Book Recording Life Stories to help you develop the overall plan for your personal life story project. Just sign up for it in the side bar form.

Record or Write, Your or My Life Story Biography

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Music is from

Jeremy Cohen “Rose Room” (mp3)
from “Jeremy Cohen: Violin Jazz”
(Violinjazz Recordings)

Buy at Napster
Buy at iTunes Music Store
More On This Album

Kermit Ruffins
“Panama” (mp3)
from “Happy Talk”
(Basin Street)

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More On This Album

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