Tips on how to Deal With Sensitive Topics in an Oral History Interview

Tips on how to Deal With Sensitive Topics in an Oral History Interview

Oral history interviews can be a powerful way to document personal stories and experiences, but they can also be challenging, especially when sensitive topics are involved. As an interviewer, it is important to be respectful and sensitive to your interviewee, and to create a safe and supportive space for them to share their story.

Here are some tips for dealing with sensitive topics in an oral history interview:

Before the interview

Do your research. Learn as much as you can about the topic you will be discussing, and the interviewee’s experiences. This will help you to ask informed and respectful questions.

Prepare your interviewee. Let them know what topics you would like to discuss, and give them the opportunity to say no to any questions they are not comfortable answering.

Establish trust and rapport. Take the time to get to know your interviewee before you start recording. This will help them to feel more comfortable talking to you about sensitive topics.

During the interview

Start with neutral questions. Neutral questions in an oral history interview are those that do not make any assumptions or judgments about the interviewee or their experiences. This will help your interviewee to feel comfortable and engaged.

Examples of such questions include

  1. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
  2. What do you remember about your childhood?
  3. What advice would you give to future generations?

Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response. They require the respondent to think critically and provide a more detailed answer. This will give your interviewee the opportunity to share their story in their own words.

Examples of such questions include

  1. How would you describe the neighborhood you live in now?
  2. What are some of the challenges you face in your job?
  3. What was your favorite childhood memory?

Listen attentively. Pay attention to your interviewee’s body language and tone of voice. If they seem uncomfortable, take a break or ask a different question.

Be respectful and sensitive. Avoid asking leading or judgmental questions. Leading and judgmental questions are not encouraged in oral history interviews because they can bias the interviewee’s responses and lead to an inaccurate or incomplete account of their story and experiences. Let the interviewee lead the way. Don’t push them to talk about anything they are not comfortable with.

After the interview

Thank your interviewee for their time and insights.

Let them know how they can access the interview transcript or recording.

Respect their privacy. Do not share their story without their permission.

Here are some additional tips for dealing with specific sensitive topics:

Trauma: Some examples of traumatic experiences that may be discussed include war, genocide, terrorism, natural disasters, grief and loss, medical trauma. If your interviewee is discussing a traumatic experience, be extra sensitive and supportive. Let them know that it is okay to take breaks or stop the interview if they need to. If you are concerned about an interviewee’s well-being, you can offer them resources for trauma support or counseling. You can also debrief with another interviewer or therapist after the interview.

Conflict: If your interviewee is discussing a conflict, be mindful of their perspective and avoid taking sides. It is important to remember that conflict in an oral history interview is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be an opportunity to learn more about the interviewee’s perspective and to challenge your own assumptions. However, it is important to manage conflict in a way that is respectful and productive.

Sexuality: If your interviewee is discussing their sexuality, be respectful and avoid making assumptions. It is also important to remember that everyone’s experience is different and there is no right or wrong way to discuss sexuality in an oral history interview.

Religion: If your interviewee is discussing their religion, be respectful of their beliefs and avoid asking judgmental questions. Be aware of the potential conflicts when discussing religion with your interviewee. Keep in mind that different religions have different beliefs and practices and it is important to be respectful of all viewpoints.

It is important to remember that every interviewee is different, and what one person is comfortable discussing, another person may not be. It is always best to err on the side of caution and be respectful of your interviewee’s privacy.

Finally if you are worried about awkward silences and uncomfortable moments in your next interview? Don’t sweat it! Check out our blog post on Tips on How to Handle Silence or Uncomfortable moments in your Oral History Interviews.

That’s it for this blog, please keep us in mind for all your oral history transcription needs.

Remember always be kind try to stay positive and learn to unwind


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