Questions to ask those near and dear to you to help you gain a deeper knowledge of their lives.

By Real Simple
Updated October 12, 2005
Kana Okada

Download this Personal History Worksheet for a list of key questions designed to evoke significant details of your family’s or friends’ past experiences.

Once you’ve got the questions, you may wonder if you’ll get answers from parents who are hesistant to open up. No worries―below are six tips for making the most of your conversations with your parents about themselves and their past.

Getting the Conversation Started With Your Parents

1. Find a starting point. Jumping into a list of questions out of the blue can feel unnatural. Instead, try to connect a question about the past with something you’re doing in the present. For example, ask about your father’s favorite family holiday while the two of you are washing dishes together after Thanksgiving dinner.

2. Get specific. “Be curious about the details of your parents’ stories,” suggests Michele Wolff, a therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, and the director of the institute’s Midlife and Beyond Program for Maturing Adults. This will help the conversation continue in an organic way and can indicate what your parent is most interested in talking about.

3. Suspend your disbelief. Any story or memory is subject to personal interpretation, and you may find that your perspective on an event differs from your parents’ memory of it. “The goal of these conversations is not necessarily to get all of the facts ‘right’ or to have the same perspective as your parents,” says Wolff. “The idea is to allow for the storytelling to unfold as a connecting process for both of you.”

4. Address discomfort up front. “If you aren’t used to having these types of conversations with your parent, or you don’t know how to broach difficult topics, it often helps to address the awkward or uncomfortable feelings openly,” Wolff says. Simply saying “I know we haven’t talked about this much before, but I think it’s important” can put everyone a little more at ease.

5. Read their cues. Your parent might need a break from the trek down memory lane but may not want to tell you she is getting tired. “If she is crossing her arms or turning away from you, you may want to postpone the conversation until another day,” says Wolff.

6. Show your appreciation. As your talk wraps up, “reflect back on moments that struck you or stories that you hope to pass down to your children and your children’s children,” Wolff says. And, of course, be sure to say “Thank you.”