John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

Conducting a Life History Interview

life history interview

Beginning the Interview
Areas to Inquire
---The history of parents and grandparents
---Early childhood
---School Years
---Adult Life
---Family Information
The Importance of Reflection

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.

While doing an 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.

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?"

Areas to Inquire

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):
    "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?"

4. Adolescence:
    "What was your adolescence like?"
    "How was your social and school life at that time?"
    "When did you mature sexually, and what was that time of your life like for you?"
    "What was your relationship with your friends like at that time?"
    "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, fiancée, 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?"
    "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.)

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 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."

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