Everyone has someone in their family who says “I don’t know anything,” “I told you everything I know” or “No one talked to me about the family”.
It’s amazing the information relatives young and old have given me after I broke through the defensive attitude. It does help that I worked several years as a newspaper reporter with lots of experience in investigative reporting. My job was to get the “I don’t know anything” types to talk to me.
So here’s my top 10 tips for getting shiny gems of information from relatives who seem to have super glued their lips.
1. If a relative says “I don’t know anything about that,” ask them what they know about the family. Maybe they would prefer to talk about something else and would feel appreciated if they could talk about their favorites stories. Let them talk, warm them up and see if any of their stories connect back to the information you are seeking.
2. If a relative says, “Why do you need this information?”, move the conversation away from you by talking about the importance of future generations learning about the family. Some relatives need to be reminded that they could help pass on important information.
3. If a relative says, “Who told you that nonsense?”, don’t act defensive. Give that relative a chance to provide their perspective for that story even if it sounds inaccurate. One of their small tidbits may be enough to put together information to break through a brick wall.
4. Don’t try to trick a relative to talk about a controversial or debated event in the family. Your plan may backfire and that could be the end of the conversation. Wait until the end to talk about controversial topics when your relative is more comfortable.
5. Some relatives may be more visual people when communicating. Ask those relatives to pull out family photos, letters and Christmas cards to talk about the relatives you are researching.
6. If you are trying to nail down a family village with an older relative who can’t recall the place, bring maps of the area or your computer to look at online maps. Ask your relative if they remember certain churches, buildings or monuments being in the community or certain villages, counties or country borders being nearby or particular industries being strong in the community.
7. Bring photos and letters your relative has not seen and show research you have done. You can try to warm them up by showing that you are willing to share with them and are not there just to extract information from them.
8. Don’t pop out digital voice recorders or video cameras without any warning. That could make your closed-off relative more nervous and hesitant. It is best to write down notes on the first visit and then ask for permission to record follow-up interviews.
9. Know when to stop asking questions. Don’t make the conversation too long. If possible, try to have a follow-up conversation to clear up some points after you have a chance to review your notes.
10. Make sure to thank your relative several times before leaving their home and call them a few days later to thank them again.