The Top 10 Family History Questions to Ask Your Relatives

Episode 55 Show Notes & Video

Probably the thing I hear most from my viewers and podcast listeners is that they regret not having interviewed their parents, grandparents and other older relatives when they had the chance.

However, it’s never to late to start interviewing relatives about family history. Even if you’re one of the oldest in your family, you have siblings and cousins who have stories to tell.

Every person in your extended family is walking around with a piece of your history in their head. Their memories are unique. No one else knows what they know. And all those memories from all of those relatives piece together like a puzzle to fit into your personal story…and your family’s story…and your kids and your grandkids stories. This means you have a pretty important job to do. You need to capture these stories not just for you, but for all the generations to come.

Use my 10 family history questions to kick off the conversation. Then, move quickly, yet sensitively, into the memories you want to hear about. And memories is the key word here. You want to tap into memories, not just “answers.” That’s why these questions are geared to help your relative go back in time, and provide thoughtful memories while avoiding simply answering yes or no.

These family history questions are also designed to fill in your relative’s backstory, and flush out how it fits into your story. The goal is to open up some new opportunities for learning more about the family’s history.

One important thing to keep in mind is that not everyone has the same energy level and enthusiasm for an interview like this. So don’t try to cover too much in one sitting. With that in mind, we’re going to focus on the top 10 questions that will give you a lot to work with after the interview. You’ll be able to take what you learn and head out for exciting new research that adds color and interest to your family history.

Great questions can uncover great stories, so in the Live YouTube Premiere of Elevenses with Lisa episode 55 I’m going to share with you:
  • my top 10 family history interview questions
  • my Pro Tip for getting an exceptional interview
  • a Bonus Idea that will add value to your family history TODAY.

Now’s the Time to Interview Your Relatives

Probably the thing I hear most from my viewers and podcast listeners is that they regret not having interviewed their parents, grandparents and other older relatives when they had the chance.

However, it’s never to late to start interviewing relatives about family history. Even if you’re one of the oldest in your family, you have siblings and cousins who have stories to tell.

Every person in your extended family is walking around with a piece of your history in their head. Their memories are unique. No one else knows what they know. And all those memories from all of those relatives piece together like a puzzle to fit into your personal story…and your family’s story…and your kids and your grandkids stories. This means you have a pretty important job to do. You need to capture these stories not just for you, but for all the generations to come.

Use my 10 family history questions to kick off the conversation. Then, move quickly, yet sensitively, into the memories you want to hear about. And memories is the key word here. You want to tap into memories, not just “answers.” That’s why these questions are geared to help your relative go back in time, and provide thoughtful memories while avoiding simply answering yes or no.

These family history questions are also designed to fill in your relative’s backstory, and flush out how it fits into your story. The goal is to open up some new opportunities for learning more about the family’s history.

One important thing to keep in mind is that not everyone has the same energy level and enthusiasm for an interview like this. So don’t try to cover too much in one sitting. With that in mind, we’re going to focus on the top 10 questions that will give you a lot to work with after the interview. You’ll be able to take what you learn and head out for exciting new research that adds color and interest to your family history.

Ice Breaker Questions for a Family History Interview

Both of you might be just a little nervous about how the conversation will go. So, just like kicking off a great party, you might need a few good icebreakers.

The first way to break the ice is just let them know how appreciative you are, with something like: “I’m so happy we’re making time for this, and I want to thank you for agreeing to talk with me and share your memories.”  Everyone like to feel appreciated, and you’ve already put that word “memories” out there instead of just “answers.”

Here are a few ice breaker questions you could use. The first two help you reveal how they are feeling about participating in the interview.

Icebreaker Question #1:
Were you surprised that I asked you to sit down for this interview?

Icebreaker Question #2:
Were you looking forward to sitting down for this interview today?

These questions might help uncover any hidden hesitancy on the part of your relative, and help you determine if a little more reassurance is in order. They may have questions about how you are going to use the information they share and where it might be shared. This is your chance to work out the details and make sure you are both on the same page.

Icebreaker Question #3:
Have you done an interview like this before with anyone else in the family?

It’s very possible that you aren’t the first person to interview them. If that’s the case, this is your opportunity to find out who else has been working on family interviews. There may be an opportunity to follow up with the other interviewer and compare findings.

These next two are just for fun:

Icebreaker Question #4:
If you had a whole day with no demands or responsibilities, how would you spend it?

Icebreaker Question #5:
What’s the coolest thing about you in your opinion?

Chances are that the answers to these icebreaker questions may elicit a few laughs getting you both warmed up for a great interview.

It’s totally up to you whether or not your use any or all of these ice breakers. If you have a really great relationship with the person, and you don’t sense any resistance, by all means feel free to jump right into the family history questions.

Pro Tip for an Exceptional Interview

Now before we jump into the 10 family history interview questions, I want to share a Pro Tip with you that will help ensure the interview goes well.

As a genealogy professional speaker, broadcaster and someone who has interviewed hundreds of people, I’ve learned the single most key to a successful interview. If you do this one thing you can’t go wrong, and I can almost guarantee that interviewing your relative will be an incredibly rewarding experience for you both.

So here it is:  Don’t worry about being a great interviewer – be an amazing listener.

Every interview has the potential to be rich, and revealing, but not if you’re not carefully and passionately listening. While you’ll be armed with these 10 questions, only actively listening will reveal where the opportunities are to learn more.

Care more about what you are hearing from your relative than how you are coming off conducting the interview.

If you hear something intriguing, unexpected, or a little tantalizingly vague, stop and inquire about that. Don’t worry about going off script or following the questions exactly. The questions help identify the layers of the onion, but it’s your job to peel off the best pieces. I can’t stress this enough.

I thoroughly prepare for every interview, both family history interviews and interviews I do for the various genealogy shows I produce. But the best and sweetest moments come from something I heard and then asked more about.

Top 10 Family History Questions to Ask Your Relatives

Now that you’ve broken the ice and are focused on actively listening, it’s time to jump into the interview with your relative. 10 questions may not seem like a lot, but these are designed to uncover lots of future opportunities for discovery about your family history. And because you’re going to be actively listening for those intriguing, unexpected, and a little tantalizingly vague comments, you’ll want to reserve plenty of time to dive deeper into them.

Question #1:
Did you know your maternal grandparents?
What do you remember about them most?

Your goal is to get them in “memory mode” and away from yes or no answers. If they struggle initially with remembering, try to help them visualize a time, event or something else tangible and ask for a few details. Often a lack of memory is really a bit of shyness about being “on the spot.” Once they tap into a few specific memories, things will likely start to flow.

Question #2:
Did you know you paternal grandparents? What do you most remember about them?

Question #3:
Who’s the oldest relative you can remember meeting?

The beauty of this question is that it has the potential to reach far back into the family tree. If your relative is in their eighties or nineties, and they met someone when they were a child who was in their nineties, you could potentially gather first-hand information about someone born in the first half of the 19th century!

If no one comes to mind right away, ask them to remember when they were a child, and think about family gatherings and holidays. These were often the times when a rare visit with an elderly relative would likely have occurred.  

Question #4:
Did you have a favorite relative? Who was the relative you most enjoyed seeing?

This is a wonderful tidbit to uncover because it tells you something more about the characteristics they personally value. This interview question is also likely to uncover some fun and entertaining stories.

Question #5:
Who was the funniest person among your relatives?

Like question #4, this question tells you about their sense of humor (what they found funny) as well as some entertaining stories. It also reveals a relative who might be a lot of fun to research further.

Feel free to change “funniest” to any quality or attribute that intrigues you. If you get an enthusiastic response, go ahead and run a few more past them such as:

  • Who was the most serious person in the family?
  • Who was the most unpredictable?
  • Who was the hardest working?
  • Who would be the most likely to give you the shirt off his back?
  • Who was the smartest?

Question #6:
Which relative do you wish you had known better and why?

All of us have relatives we met once or twice but never had an opportunity to really get to know. The nice thing about the answer to this question is that it puts an opportunity in your lap. The person they name would be an ideal person to research further after the interview. Ask about the person in your other interviews with relatives. Do some independent research on them. Pull together what you learn and write a little something up for your relative to include in a thank you card or email. This small effort will further demonstrate your commitment to the family’s history and provide the perfect expression of your gratitude for the interview.

Question #7:
Who was the family historian in the family when you were growing up?

Even if your relative is a lot older than you, and the person they name has passed away, it’s still worth asking. Learn what you can about the person named and then try to get in contact with their descendants. Ask your relative how they knew them, where they lived, and the names of their kids. If you need help finding their living descendants, check out my video How to Find Living Relatives and download the handout (Premium Membership required.)

Question #8:
Remembering back to your childhood, was there a storyteller in your family?

If no one comes to mind initially, ask your relative if they recall hearing stories in the family. Ask, was their “family lore” that everyone was well aware of? You may get a few nuggets of information that could open up new avenues of genealogical research.

Question #9:
What family traditions did you most enjoy?

Family Traditions help bind generations together. Hearing about traditions that may have gone by the wayside can provide clues to the family culture and ethnic heritage. You might even hear about a tradition worth resurrecting.

Question #10:
What haven’t I asked that you’d like to tell me about?

You could also phrase this question as What haven’t I asked you that you were hoping I would? I like both and use them interchangeably. Either way, this interview question is a little insurance policy that there will be no regrets of missed opportunities after the interview is over.

Family History Interview Bonus Idea

Here’s a way to get even more from these 10 questions. Grab a piece of paper (or open a document on your computer), go back and watch this video again and answer these questions yourself. This is your chance to finally write down what you remember.

As the family historian, it’s easy to neglect doing these things for ourselves. Don’t let not telling your own story be yet another regret. Your memories are also an important part of your family’s history. Download the ad-free show Family History Interview Worksheet  (Premium Membership required) in the show notes Resources section. Fill it in and add your stories to your family history today! Then learn more about telling your own story by watching these Premium videos:

Resources

Comments

What are some of your favorite family history related interview questions that you would add to this list? Share yours in the comments below.

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