Genealogy Clips

Getting Your Older Relatives to Open Up about Family History

Interviewing older family members is a basic part of beginning genealogy research. If you have access to these relatives, interviewing them for their unique take on the past and the ancestors who lived in it is so important. You don’t want those stories to be lost. However, some relatives may not want to talk, and some may go off-topic a lot in an interview. Here is how to get the best out of both types of older relatives.

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We all know that the best way to start a family tree research project is to interview our older relatives. We start with what we know, which is usually our closest relatives, and then get information from them on the relatives they knew best when they were young. Of course, obtaining this information is easier said than done with some relatives.

While you will undoubtedly encounter plenty who are more than willing to talk (let’s face it, most people love to talk about themselves and their childhoods), others may be more reticent to discuss the past. Family secrets and past traumas can make them reluctant, as can negative experiences they may have had with the people you want them to tell you about. Even those who are glad to talk can ramble and get off-topic. Here is how to get people to open up in genealogy interviews, and keep them on point, to make the most of your valuable research time.

With those who are reluctant to talk, try to gently find out why. If you know what upsets them about the past, you can avoid it in conversation. Assure them that you only want to know about your ancestors and where you come from, which is a perfectly normal thing to want to know about. You can even let them give you a list of what they will and will not talk about before the interview (and, be sure to stick to it when you talk to them). If they don’t want to talk about certain people, don’t bring them up.

You can always look for someone else in the family who may have information on the unmentionable people, but you can’t get the unique perspective on the family tree and the family in decades past from anyone but that one person, so be sure to get whatever you can out of them. Just keep them comfortable in the interview, keep away from topics they don’t want to discuss, and you will do fine. You may even be surprised at what they will reveal, once they feel good about their conversation with you.

As for older relatives who are happy to talk, but who ramble off-topic, it may be best to bring a hand-held voice recorder, or even to record them with your phone. This way, you can go back and pull out the useful pieces of the interview later, and be sure you aren’t missing anything that’s a genealogical gem in all the chatter.

You can also gently bring them back on topic by asking pointed questions about the things and people you want to know about. Be sure to do this whenever there is a break in the conversation, and try to make the question sound natural by relating it to whatever it was that relative was just saying.

If you do these things, interviewing your older relatives should be a breeze.


Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.