By Laura A. Roser

 “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” —Ernest Hemingway, American journalist, novelist, and short-story writer

Are you thinking about interviewing your loved ones to capture their stories? The first step is getting them to open up. You would think this would be easy, but it can prove to be rather difficult — especially if you’re not used to talking about deep life topics with that person.

At the University of Maryland distinguished social psychologist Arie Kruglanski once did a study about motivation. What he and his team found is that there are two motivational mindsets: the thinking mindset and the doing mindset.

Thinking vs. Doing Mindset

When you listen to someone, you put yourself in the “thinking mindset.” You pay attention to details, process what is being said, and think through the implications. The second you focus on planning what you are going to say next, you enter the “doing mindset” and don’t think through events carefully.

You see this all the time in conversations or arguments. Someone will vent a frustration to a friend, and that friend will immediately offer solutions without truly hearing what the other person has said. Instead of spending a bit more time thinking through the problem, the friend jumps into action mode immediately.

The point of an interview is to listen to your interviewee and collect responses. So you would think that this automatically puts you in the thinking mindset. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

I hate to admit this, but in some interviews, I was so focused on the next question that I didn’t properly process what was being said. The problem with this is that when you focus on your next words, you often miss details that are important for follow-up questions and making the interview flow better. Your interviewee wants to feel heard. She wants to feel like you care about what she’s saying and not solely focused on rushing through your questions.

In focusing on your next question, you may miss the emotion behind what is being said.

Best Practices for Better Listening

The following are some basic guidelines for better listening.

Listening Guideline 1: Lead with Curiosity

When you’re genuinely curious about someone’s story or behavior, you turn off your defensiveness and openly accept that person for who she is. Your interviewee may tell you things that you find peculiar. Asking why she did something or what motivated her from a nonjudgmental place will allow your interviewee to open up and explain her thoughts and feelings.

Listening Guideline 2: Know When You or the Other Person Is Fried

Authentic listening requires humility and curiosity. Sometimes that just isn’t possible — your interviewee is tired or his mind is preoccupied or you aren’t in the right frame of mind.

Don’t try to fake it. It won’t work — you’ll just come across as disingenuous or the interview will be forced. If you really want to save the interview, consider going on a walk or taking a break. Some light exercise can help dramatically. But if that doesn’t do the trick, the best thing to do is reschedule.

Listening Guideline 3: Stay Focused

Maintain eye contact, set your cell phone on “do not disturb,” and don’t let your mind wander. Focus on your interviewee’s responses and don’t interrupt.

Listening Guideline 4: Don’t Try to Read Minds

If your interviewee says something you don’t quite understand, ask what he means. Also, ask yourself if you’re making unfounded assumptions. Are you leaping to conclusions without asking for more detail? It’s always better to check your assumptions than presume you know what the other person is thinking.

Listening Guideline 5: Pay Attention to Body Language

Your interviewee will have a baseline. Maybe she talks quickly. Maybe she hangs her head when she’s thinking about an answer. Pay attention to how the interviewee speaks, moves, and enunciates when she is relaxed.

Throughout the interview, if you begin to see changes, you’ll know something is going on with him emotionally. If he starts tapping his foot, his voice pitches higher than usual, or he folds his arms and speaks in a whisper, this could mean that he is distressed, excited, tired, angry, or a variety of other emotions.

Listening Guideline 6: Think Before You Speak

Going along with Arie Kruglanski’s study mentioned above, remember that the most important thing is for your interviewee to feel heard. Once the interviewee finishes answering a question, spend a second or two absorbing what you heard. If you need more time, say so: “Give me a couple seconds to think about what you just said.” In these few seconds, think about if you want to ask relevant follow-up questions or if you’d like to move on to your next question.

In either case, it’s a good idea to rephrase part of what he said so he knows you were listening. For example, if your grandfather just told you about his time working on the farm, you might say something like, “Thank you for sharing the story about getting up every morning to milk the cow. I’m sure that wasn’t easy. Now, tell me a little more about your mother. What was she like when you were growing up?”

Listening Guideline 7: Never Judge (Even If It’s Really Tempting)

The fastest way to cut an interview short is to show contempt for someone. If your interviewee feels your disdain, he will either become defensive or close off completely.

Be honest with yourself here. Interviewing family can open up old wounds, and if you hit a topic where you really can’t see a way out of being judgmental, try to distance yourself and come at it with curiosity. If that still doesn’t work, it may be time to change the subject or take a break. If you or your interviewee is agitated, the result isn’t going to be good.

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Laura A. Roser is the founder and CEO of Paragon Road, the #1 authority in meaning legacy planning. For more information about meaning legacy planning services, visit