Life History

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life history interview
Introduction and Guidelines

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.

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."

Other examples of open-ended reflections might be:

"I guess you really enjoyed that...
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