Enhance Your Conversations with Family by Asking the Right Questions

Want to know more about your family history? Just ask!


Family, Happiness
Family laughing and talking together at family gathering

(Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock.com)

Elizabeth Keating has been spending a lot of time interviewing grandparents. This University of Texas anthropologist is on a mission to enhance family dialogues. In a blog post on The Conversation Keating writes that by asking our parents and grandparents the right questions, we can glean knowledge and insights, learn about their experiences, and become more connected to them.

Her thesis is that approaching conversations with parents and grandparents like an anthropologist approaches cultures and ways of living can open the door to valuable, interesting, and more meaningful family discussions.

Ask now, before it's too late
Keating wrote her book, “The Essential Questions,” after realizing too late that many of her parents’ stories and memories had been lost, INC reports. 

"It wasn't until after my parents died, though, that I wondered whether I really knew them in a deep, rich, and nuanced way.” she tells INC. “And I realized that I'd never asked them about the formative periods of their lives, their childhoods and teenage years. What had I missed? How had this happened?" 

That’s when Keating started brainstorming questions and conversation topics that would have allowed her to gain valuable insight into her parents past. “I wanted details that would help me see the world that had influenced the person they became,” she expresses in her blog post on The Conversation.

Asking the right questions
Keating had indeed interviewed her mother, but she had asked about details like relatives, names, birth dates, marriages, and births — the type of information needed to build a family tree, not to develop an intimate profile of her mother’s life, experiences, and worldview.

In her book, Keating suggests approaching some family conversations from an anthropological point of view, to facilitate more meaningful discussions. Keating, herself, tested out some of these prompts on interviewees, asking them about their childhoods and their ordinary social lives growing up.

“So I used my training as an anthropologist to ask the type of questions an anthropologist would ask when trying to understand a way of life or culture they know little about,” Keating writes in her blog post, “Anthropologists want to see the world from another person’s point of view, through a new lens. The answers I got from older people opened whole new worlds for me.”

Conversations can connect generations
Keating explains that asking not just about experiences, but also about objects, often elicits meaning-rich memories. For example, she gained the following insight into mother-daughter bonding, by asking a subject about her kitchen stool. 

“Mum used to say to me that the best part of the day was me coming home from school, coming in the back door and sitting on the stool in the kitchen and just talking, a mother-daughter thing. I’ve still got that stool from the kitchen,” the anonymous interviewee told Keating. “My father built it in evening classes. My children remember sitting on the stool in the kitchen, too, while Grandma was baking, passing time, drinking cups of tea and eating shortbread.”

When Keating asked about phones, another elderly subject complained that she had a difficult time connecting to youngsters absorbed in their devices. But further questioning uncovered the grandmother’s interesting experiences with phones herself, while growing up in rural South Dakota. 

Her neighborhood had a “party line” phone, where all local families shared one telephone line. Although you were only supposed to pick up the phone when the special ring signifying your household sounded, her mother often used the party line to eavesdrop.

“We had a phone, and it was on a party line. And you know, we would have our ring, and of course, you’d hear the other rings too,” the interviewee told Keating. “And then sometimes, my mom would sneak it and lift up the receiver to see what was going on.”

Keating suggests, in her blog post, that this conversation shows that the grandmother and her young descendents have a lot more than they realized in common. Both have had experiences with telephones connecting them to their communities. This shared experience can become a point of intergenerational understanding and connection. 

These conversations aren’t easy, but they are worth it
According to INC facilitating these conversations and asking these questions isn’t so easy. Research suggests that people prefer to engage in small talk, because more meaningful conversations are fraught with potential awkwardness. 

However, the same study also uncovered that the more substantive conversations actually make people feel happier. Younger generations feel good about facilitating meaningful family dialogues, and the older partners, parents and grandparents, may have an additional reason to enjoy speaking about their past. 

Keating writes in her blog post, “Grandparents are often lonely and feel no one listens or takes what they have to say seriously. I found out that this can be because many of us don’t know how to start a conversation that gives them a chance to talk about the vast knowledge and experience they have.”

She tells about one research participant who used Keating’s questions to facilitate a dialogue with her mother. As the conversation wound down, the daughter remarked, “I never knew this stuff before.”

Her 92-year-old mother responded, “All you have to do is just ask.”

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