How to talk to family members about their stories

Approaching family members about their stories can sometimes feel awkward, especially when you don’t have a close relationship. But every person’s story has value, and it’s important to record your family’s history before it’s lost to time.

Here are a few tips to get the old stories flowing with family members, especially the ones you don’t know well.

Take the time

Life moves fast, and stories take time. Your family’s lineage took decades to accumulate, so now more than ever it’s important to be deliberate and take time to honor the past.

While exploring a new neighborhood in a car, you see the surface facade. “Oh, that was a pretty house” as it flies by the window on to the next. But when you walk through a new neighborhood, you can stop, dwell, discover new paths, and explore.

History is the same idea. The more you rush, the more it ends up being a surface-level experience. Slow down, quiet your phone or other distractions, and connect with the person sitting across from you. Just start talking.

The conversation may not go exactly as you’d planned, but each person’s experience is rich with lots of new avenues to discover. You will never know if you don’t take the time to find out.

Don’t force the experience

Avoid creating an experience that makes your family member feel pressured. No one enjoys feeling like they are being interrogated, or forced to share for someone else’s agenda. It’s an experience killer for anyone.

A conversation with your loved one should feel relaxed and natural. Don’t create an inauthentic experience by planning too much, even if you’re trying to make it extra special. Sometimes too much planning can make people feel under the spotlight. Connection can happen any time or any place that feels natural.

Don’t stress over what story you’re hoping to record or when it needs to happen; just let the connection you are creating evolve.

Your loved one has experiences that you don’t know about; give them room to feel comfortable to share. No matter where your talk leads, you will walk away with memories and stories you can treasure for generations to come.

Bring up topics they are passionate about

Was your stodgy, old granddad a military man in World War II? Did he restore transistor radios or rebuild old cars?

Most of us avoid bringing up topics we don’t know about, but exploring topics your loved ones are passionate about is a great way to get a conversation flowing. You might not be interested in the inner workings of an engine, but that information will lead to more topics that you are interested in.

Your loved ones will feel more comfortable opening up when you are genuinely interested in their interests. Think of using small talk conversations as a warm up toward accessing larger memories.

Ask questions… and record your conversation

Questions are a great way to start a conversation but make sure that your questions are open ended. “What were you like as a child?” vs. “Were you a good kid?” The first question leaves room for the answer. Asking only yes or no questions is a quick way to shut a conversation down before it starts.

Be sensitive to avoid asking too many questions, especially probing questions. You might touch on a topic your loved one is uncomfortable discussing or maybe they want to share but aren’t ready. Whatever the reason, listen carefully, respect their boundaries, and avoid passing judgement.

Listening with an open heart and open mind will nurture the relationship so they feel comfortable opening up to you again in the future.

Remember to ask your loved one if it’s okay to record their stories or take notes while they’re talking. Realize they are taking the time to open up to you and honor their place in your history.

Use objects to trigger memories

Did you have a blankie? What did it feel like? Where is it now?
The objects we take with us on life’s most important (or mundane) events, become as ingrained in us as the experience itself.

Looking at an old article of clothing or record collection, immediately jolts the memory of when that keepsake was part of your daily life. Rummaging through your family’s momentos can be one of the most simple but powerful ways to connect with stories from the past.

Take the step to ask family members about objects that are important to them. Spend time looking through the attic together or dig into the old musty chest in the corner, your family history lives there! And write down what you find!

Talking to loved ones about their stories might seem like a daunting task. Relationship building can be nerve wracking and if done right, takes time. Ironically, it is sometimes the people who we are closest to that we know the least about. But by taking the time to learn about the stories of your loved ones, you are creating a clearer present and stronger future for your family!

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      The Kin Keepers are those family members who know all the family’s stories, and pass them along to the next generations.  They remember the birthdays, plan the celebrations, and make the calls to see that everyone is okay. Their spirit of kinship is what keeps the family together and strong

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