Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 17

Chapter 19


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Chapter 18: Lifestyle Interview Questions

            You have now read the transcript of Sharon’s lifestyle interpretation. As you will recall from Arthur’s interview in Chapter 3, and as you will see again in the interview of Gary in the following chapter, exactly the same set of questions does not need to be asked in each interview. Rather, the overarching goal of an interview is to find patterns that are repeated in the early memories and in adult life. In order to find a repeated pattern, you will ask different types of questions to elicit different types of information:
            1. Questions about the person’s formative years. Was there any aspect of the person’s childhood – an illness, birth order, parental treatment – that might have influenced her development in a certain way? Questions about childhood illnesses, relationships with parents, and relationships with siblings all fall into this category.
            2. Survey questions. These are broad sweeping questions that seek to uncover a large amount of information about the life course. “What have been the most important decisions in your life?;” “Tell me about your career;” or “Tell me about your interests and hobbies” all fall into this category.
            3. Confirming questions. If you have developed a theory, you can then ask questions to confirm that theory. We have already seen how Adler asked about dreams and greatest fears in order to confirm his theory of a person’s lifestyle. In Sharon’s interview, when I see that she strongly aligns herself with authority figures, I begin asking her confirming questions how she has specifically made particular decisions such as to marry her husband and to accept Christ.
            Sometimes, the questions you ask will serve more than one of the above functions, as suggested in the illustration below:

Types of Interview Questions
interview questions

            The eleven groups of questions below are those that were taught me when I was first instructed in Adlerian lifestyle interpretation, together with those presented in Adler’s writings which I have found particularly useful. Take the time now to familiarize yourself with these questions and to consider what type of information they might evoke. I have roughly divided them into the three categories of formative, survey and confirming. Remember that these categories can overlap. Also find below a section on how to ask questions about early memories and a section on observing the interviewee’s behavior.

I. Formative Questions

1) How was your health growing up? Did you have any significant illnesses or injuries as a child?
            Here, you are looking for childhood conditions that may have influenced the adult character. Remember that an individual may become either discouraged by his illness or may, instead, manage to compensate positively for it. As an example of positive compensation, consider Kristi Yamaguchi, an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating who was born with two clubbed feet. In other cases, you may encounter a person who has been disheartened by childhood health problems. His lifestyle may include strong elements of pessimism or even defeatism.
            Individuals who provide long lists of childhood injuries may also be offering other clues into their personalities. One woman, for example, had injured herself severely in various childhood accidents and, as an adult, had also been in several car accidents. She was not only very active, but also very reckless.

2) What is your birth order? Tell me about your siblings.
            When learning about a person’s birth order, form a hypothesis. If he is an older child, might he be conservative, responsible or authoritarian? Might he suffer from having been, as Adler, says “dethroned?” If he is a younger child, perhaps he is ambitious or rebellious. If he is an only child, how has this shaped him? Does he tend to be a loner, or does he especially seek out company? Was he spoiled by his parents?
            Also look for specific nuances in a family situation. Was an individual the only son or the only daughter in the family? If so, he or she may have received preferential treatment as a child. Was an individual substantially older or substantially younger than the other siblings? If so, he or she may behave more like an only child.
            Do exercise caution. Remember that you are merely looking for clues, and not seeking to put people in boxes. If a person doesn’t fit an archetype, then simply discard your theory.

3) Tell me about your parents.
            Here, we are looking again for information about the formation of the personality. How might parental personality traits and child-raising philosophies have affected a person’s character? Remember that Adler focused especially on spoiled or pampered children and on neglected or abused children.
            Other parental influences may also crop up in an interview. Sharon reported that she learned from her mother to lie. To provide another example, often a child may choose his adult profession, such as a fireman or a doctor, because of a parent’s occupation.

4) Was there anything unusual about your childhood?
            This is a broad question that may bring up information otherwise omitted or glossed over. An interviewee may relate that he was abused as a child. Perhaps a child was an “army brat” and experienced little stability in early life. Many clues to formative forces can be gathered when people answer this question affirmatively.

II. Survey Questions

5) What were the three most important decisions in your life?
            Conrad Kaplan, not Alfred Adler, introduced this question to the lifestyle interview. This is a useful broad question that usually elicits a great deal of information about a person’s adult life. The question can be particularly helpful when looking for that repeated pattern that appears both in the earliest memories and in later life.
            Recall the memory discussed of the environmental activist who remembered being startled awake as a child by a noise. Rather than lying in bed or hiding, he opted to go and investigate the noise. When asked about his most important life decisions, he said he chose to pursue a career in environmental activism because he was frightened by the way human beings were treating the planet. The memory was one of being afraid and of confronting the fear. The career choice was also of being afraid and of confronting a fear. This, then, was the man’s lifestyle.
            When posing this question, be sure to phrase it exactly as it is written above. Do not ask what are the most important decisions the person has made, rather ask, what have been the most important decisions in her life. Some people will refer to decisions that others have made for them, such as a company’s decision to relocate them to another town or a parent’s decision to change them to a different school. People who refer to decisions made by others may be suggesting that they see their life as controlled by others.

6) Tell me about your career.
            This is another question that typically provides plenty of information about the adult life and that, like the question about key decisions, can reveal a repeated behavior pattern. Consider the early memory of the woman who hid in the grass and liked being alone. After a stint in management that “wasn’t right for her,” she obtained an education in different branches of alternative medicine. She became a sole practitioner and enjoyed the luxury of a great deal of time to herself.

7) Tell me about your hobbies and interests.
            This question can often reveal the same type of information as questioning a person about her career.

III. Confirming Questions

8) What do you like most about your significant other? What do you like least?
            It is important to first ask people what they like most about their significant other so as not to offend. Interestingly, few people can actually answer with precision what they like most about their significant other. When asked what they like least, however, most people will be able to place their finger on the button immediately.
            Often, this question can confirm what people view as most negative in life – the inferiority feeling that they strive to overcome. Consider this early memory of a woman who recalled acting up during supper: In her memory, she was laughing boisterously with her sister at dinner. Her mother made both siblings sit in the corner. When asked what she was thinking in the memory, the woman reported that she was thinking that her mother’s reaction had been such an exaggeration.
            When this woman was later asked what she liked least about her spouse, she answered without hesitation “he is always exaggerating.” The woman viewed exaggeration as particularly negative, believed that people tend to exaggerate, and therefore perceived the most negative quality in her spouse to be perennial exaggerations. (And, indeed, if we were to delve into Adler’s theory of romantic attraction, we would discover that he maintains that such a woman would, in fact, tend to marry an exaggerator.)

9) What is something annoying that happened to you recently?
            As with the previous question about a significant other, this question can also confirm what people perceive to be most negative about life – the inferiority feeling that they strive to overcome. One woman had an early memory of playing in the backyard with a girlfriend. They had a toy telephone made of tin cans attached by a string, and they were talking to each other into the tin cans. The string broke, and she called out to the girl that she couldn’t hear her. When asked about something annoying that had happened to her recently, the woman related an incident of a button popping off at a conference and she did not have a needle or thread to fix the button. The lifestyle: “I don’t have the proper tools.” Her professional life was a quest to overcome this feeling of not being properly equipped. The woman was a marketing researcher and, for her work, she constantly developed new research methods.

10) Do you have any recurring dreams? Or, have you had any memorable dreams lately?
            We have already gone in depth into Adler’s theory of dream interpretation. Dreams amplify the feelings of the lifestyle. To provide an additional example, a woman who was abused as a child had a recurring memory of a pack of wolves in sheep’s clothing. This dream of a common metaphor for hypocrisy reinforced her lifestyle that “people are not to be trusted.”

11) What would you do if you didn’t have this health condition?
            This question applies mostly to a formal therapy setting where a person presents to the therapist with a specific problem. Nonetheless, it bears mention here. Adlerian theory sees neuroses as attempts to avoid life’s responsibilities. For example, a person who has insomnia and says he would find a better job if only he could sleep better, is, according to Adler, using the insomnia as an excuse to avoid work. When interpreting early memories in an informal setting, exercise caution when using this question; it may seem highly judgmental and modern genetics have taught us that many health conditions are simply inherited.

IV. Early Memories

When asking a person about her early memories, make sure that you form a full and accurate picture of the recollection. If the person’s initial description is too scanty, ask follow-up questions: What was she thinking? What was she feeling? Make sure you understand the exact order of the events that take place in the memory. At times, people will attempt to provide a “memory” of some incident in childhood that is actually family lore; remember that you are only interested in memories actually recalled by the person you are interviewing. At other times, people will remember ongoing, repeated events: I used to wait on the back stairs. Or, My grandmother always walked me home. Such memories are sometimes telling, but they are typically not as useful as memories of specific, one-time events. Ideally, you should draw out a memory that tells a short story.

V. Mannerisms and Body Language

            Interviewing an individual in person provides you with a unique opportunity to observe his mannerisms, mode of speech and body language. Recall that Adler could correctly guess a person’s birth order simply by observing him for the first time. When conducting interviews, consider how someone’s lifestyle might be reflected in his body language. Does he sit erect and appear confident? Does he fidget nervously? Is his speech hurried and pressured? Is he meek and hardly audible? The lifestyle is to be found “in all its expressions” – including carriage and mannerisms. In the interview with Sharon, I found a woman who was relaxed, soft spoken and apparently comfortable with her life. In Arthur’s interview, he sat hunched forward, spoke quickly with a clipped decisive cadence, and had a resounding voice.

Finally: Consider Your Strategy

            It is possible to conduct an interview and uncover the lifestyle using precisely the questions presented above. When you first try to interpret a lifestyle, you may choose to follow exactly this approach. At the same time, it is important to keep your eye on the big picture. Your strategy, in conducting an interview, is to:

1) Form a hypothesis based on the childhood environment.
2) Find a pattern in the early memories.
3) Find a repeated pattern in adult life.
4) Elicit a confirmation from the person you are interviewing.

By focusing on these broad strokes, you may well be able to formulate questions of your own that will help you in interviewing people. In the following chapter, a lifestyle interview with a man in his early forties, Gary, you will have an opportunity to see how easily and spontaneously questions work their way into an interview when the interviewer is focused on these four overriding goals.

A Formula that Works: Questions for Interpreting the Lifestyle


1) How was your health growing up? Did you have any significant illnesses or injuries as a child?

2) What is your birth order? Tell me about your siblings.

3) Tell me about your parents.

4) Was there anything unusual about your childhood?

5) What is your first memory? Describe your earliest memories. (What are you thinking/feeling in each memory?)

6) What were the three most important decisions in your life?

7) Tell me about your career.

8) Tell me about your hobbies and interests.

9) What do you like most about your significant other? What do you like least?

10) What is something annoying that happened to you recently?

11) Do you have any recurring dreams? Or, have you had any memorable dreams lately?

12) What would you do if you didn’t have your current health condition?


1. Ellenberger, 620.


(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)