The purpose of getting a life history on a person is to be able to “paint a picture” of who they are. The information from the history should not just be a random collection of facts. The history should be an account of the person’s life story, including important themes in their life that reflect the development of their personality and their relationships with other people. Life histories play key roles in psychological treatment and research. While the following guidelines are rather typical of the sort of questions asked, interviews vary considerable depending on who’s doing them and why. Your purpose in conducting this interview is educational. While your objective is collecting the same information you might in a real clinical or research situation, keep in mind this is a didactic exercise. Therefore, be willing to sacrifice sensitive or upsetting information to protect the comfort and privacy of your subject. Be sure to let him or her know (s)he does not need to talk about anything (s)he doesn’t want to.
While doing the interview, pay careful attention to how the person is responding to your questions, and always be respectful of his/her privacy. If it seems like the person is uncomfortable discussing some aspect of his or her life, don’t press for an answer. Move on to the next part of the interview. Each of you will interview a classmate. Then, that classmate will interview you. I expect each interview to take about 1.5 hours. You should take notes, and if you have access to a tape recorder, I would recommend using it too. Be sure to check your recorder to see that it is working, though, and take notes anyway–machines fail at the darndest times! Be sure to print a copy of these guidelines and bring them with you. Don’t be afraid to refer back to them for questions and guidance about topics to broach. This assignment is due on 5/29/00.
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Beginning the Interview
It is best to begin the interview by giving the person free range to tell their life story. Where they start their story and how they tell it will reveal what immediately strikes them as important. So begin the interview with the following instructions:
“I’d like to find out about your life history. Could you tell me about it? Describe it to me as if you were telling me your life story.”
Most people will leave out certain details. If the details seem important, use open-ended questions to probe for more information, such as
“And then what happened?” or “What did you do after that?”
We also want to find out about how people thought and felt about what happened to them. If they omit this information, use such questions as
“How did you feel about that?” or “What did you think about that at the time?”
The Importance of Reflection
It is best if the interview doesn’t turn into a “question and answer” session where you ask questions and they give short answers. It’s difficult to do, but try to turn the interview into a smoothly flowing discussion. Use the technique known as “reflection” to encourage a person to talk more about something. Simply reflect back to the person some important aspect of what they have just said. You may simply repeat the exact words the person used, or you may sometimes add in some thought or feeling that you detected in what the person said. Reflections are NOT in the form of a question. If you can do this effectively, you won’t have to bombard the person with all of the questions listed above. Here are some examples:
Person: “My father and I used to play ball in the backyard. We had a lot of fun with that.” You: “You and your father had some fun times.” Person: “When he said that to me, it really annoyed me. I couldn’t believe my best friend would say something like that.” You: “He could really get you angry with his remarks.”
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Other examples of open-ended reflections might be:
“I guess you really enjoyed that time of your life.”
“It sounds like it upset you when he said that.”
“It seems like that was a very important event for you.”
When a question does seem necessary, open-ended questions are most likely to lead to richer responses (rather than “yes” or “no”).
Open ended questions invite answers that are descriptive and elaborative, rather than monosyllables. “How do you feel about school” is an open-ended questions, because it allows great latitude in the response that might be given. “Do you like school” would merely prompt a few word response; similarly, a multple-choice format limits responses. There are situations where open-ended questions are not optimal (e.g., “When and where were you born” is fine).
But usually, the goal is getting the subject to talk about important topics, rather than answer hundreds of questions you think might be relevant. Open-ended questions are usually best for initiating a flowing conversation.
Areas to Explore
People will also leave out certain topic areas that are important. You will need to ask questions about this areas, but always try to do so in an open-ended way that allows people to express themselves freely, according to what strikes them as important. You should get information about all of the following areas. Start with the first open-ended question, and work your way down to the following questions, if needed. 1. The history of parents and grandparents:
“Tell me about your parents’ lives.”
“What can you tell me about your grandparents’ lives?”
(Inquire about their lives before and after marriage, including important events in their life, their childhood, education, occupation, ethnic and religious background. If they leave out a parent or grandparent, inquire about them)
2. early childhood (before school):
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“What do you know about yourself as a baby.”
“What was your mother’s pregnancy like?”
“Were there any family stories or jokes about what you were like as a child?”
“What are your earliest childhood memories?”
“What do you remember or know about major early events in your life – like eating habits, walking, talking, and toilet training?”
“Were there any stresses in your family at that time?”
3. School Years:
“What were your early years in school like?”
“Do you remember the very first day of school?”
“How did you do at school work through the years?”
“What were your relationships like with your teachers and schoolmates?”
“Who were your friends and what sorts of things did you do with them?”
“What was your adolescence like?”
“How was your social and school life at that time?”
“When did you enter puberty. How did your life change then?
“What was your relationship with your friends during your teen years?”
“What was your relationship with your family at that time?”
“When did you start to date, and what were those relationships like?”
5. Adult Life (including college):
“What has been important about your adult life?”
“What have your adult relationships with friends and co- workers been like?”
“What has your relationship with your (husband/wife, fiance, boyfriend/girlfriend) been like?
“What types of jobs have you worked at, and what did you think about those jobs?”
“What was college like for you?”
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“What hobbies or other interests do you have?”
6. Family Information (if you didn’t already get this info):
“What has your family been like over the years.”
“Tell me about your brothers and sisters” (age, education, marital status, their relationship with the interviewee)
“How would you describe the personalities of the people in your family?”
“What role did each parent take in raising you?”
“Were there any emotional problems in the family, or conflicts between family members?”
“Did your family ever move? What was that like?”
“What is the ethnic background of your family?”
“What has been your religious upbringing, and your attitudes about religion?”
“Describe your own family.” (relationship with children, how children relate to each other and spouse, typical activities, etc.)
Questions & Answers about the Assignment
Here are some questions a classmate asked. I felt it might be helpful to share them, and my replies, with the rest of you. I do have a tape recorder ( I am not sure if I trust it very much, what if it doesn’t pick up the voice or ???),
Point the mike at the interviewee, talk a few minutes, then play it back to see if it’s working. If your partner has a tape, use it too as a back-up. I actually do use two sometimes in my work. And, of course, take notes in case the darn thing decides to fail when you need it most.
but what should I do about notes? (i don’t write very fast at all) And how can/should an interviewer take notes so as to minimize its interference in the interview?
Learning to use shorthand is part of learning to be a good inteviewer. Just write what you must to reconstruct the conversation. You can go back and fill in the details later. It’s ok to ask the interviewee to wait while you write (“just a second, please…ok, thanks, go ahead.”).
This is less disruptive than you might imagine, as long as you don’t do it too frequently.
Are we supposed to ask All the questions? That is a stupid lead-in on my part, but it seems like that would take longer than 1.5 hours.
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I actually expect the interviews will run about 2 hours, but if I assigned that people would run over anyway, so I thought I’d do you a favor by starting with a lower expectation. Try to pace yourself. If you find you’re spending lots of time on one part of your subject’s life, move the conversation (“great. Thanks. Now, could you tell me about [new topic]”).
I don’t expect anyone will follow the guidelines exactly. That’s why I’m offering them as guidelines rather than a rigid set of questions.
Are there wrong responses to this interview? I would not want to ramble and be a bore. I like to talk/share. I am trying to decide if I should warn my interviewer.
That really is the interviewer’s job…to politely redirect the subject when (s)he rambles off. Some of that is inevitable, even desirable, but it is important to redirect things when the subject lapses into long, relatively unimportant tangents.
Besides what if you just don’t remember or it takes too long to try and remember or you only remember vaguely or if things are difficult to explain?
Well, you won’t be able to say much about those things. That’s ok.
It’s not as though I think about these things all that often or in specific articulable terms, ya know? Or do I sound like an idiot?
No, I feel the same way about some of the questions. For example, I don’t know much about my toilet training. I suppose if I was still in diapers at age 4 I probably WOULD know about it, so often, when something in early childhood is unremarkable, we don’t know much about it. That’s fine.
Should we try to think of responses? What should/can I do to be a better interviewee/interviewer?
I don’t think you need to prepare to be interviewed. Of course, there’s no harm in thinking a little about the questions ahead of time, but I think it would be a poor idea to prepare your responses. That wouldn’t give your interviewer a very natural experience.
By the way, what is the age range difference between what is referred to in/by Schoool Years versus Adolescence?
School Years generally refers to middle- and later-childhood, say the ages of 6-12.
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Also, What is due on the 26nd? Notes? A write-up of some sort? Q & A transcript type record?
No. Both interviews should be complete by that date. Your write up will be due on the last meeting of class.
You say this is a Didactic experience—as opposed to what? What sort of instruction is that intended to give us? Did you mean to convey anything specific, may I ask? Not to sound suspicious, just trying to understand.
I’m trying to remind you that this is a learning experience. So, if you start discussing things that are upsetting to the interviewee, or (s)he is reluctant to discuss, I wouldn’t encourage you to “push” or “dig deeper.” One might do such things during a professional assessment, or as a therapist, but this is an educational experience for the interviewer, not a clinical intervention to benefit the interviewee. Consequently, it’s appropriate to sacrifice information that be essential in a different context.
For example, if you find that your subject was beaten as a kid, you might not push for details in this exercise (that would be an unwarrented intrusion), although I certainly might in a “real” clinical or research interview.