What in the World is 'Debriefing'?

A number of years ago, our family left a country in North Africa that we dearly loved. For multiple reasons, that season of our life and work had to come to an abrupt end.

We quickly moved to another country and began the necessary transition into another language, culture, country, and way of life. Unfortunately, my spouse and I, along with our children, didn’t have adequate time to process what we were going through.

It’s as if our family had to quickly leap from one giant rock to the next, hoping to make it across the turbulent waters. What our family really needed was someone who would place some “stepping stones” between the rocks—taking us by the hand to lead us safely across and preparing a smooth and safe “landing” for us.

We didn’t “leave well,” so we didn’t “land well.”.png

This idea of “leaving well” and “landing well” crosses over into many of our life experiences—some shorter, some longer. These experiences may include a season of life, a specific time period (month, year, or years), a work situation, a relationship, an isolated event, or even a trauma.

For our family, as a result of not taking the time needed to process our transition from North Africa, we carried a lot of unwanted baggage to our new home and life. The load of unprocessed emotions and experiences became heavy throughout the years. Honestly, we didn’t even realize that we were carrying them until the unprocessed “stuff” would rear its ugly head at inopportune times and start “leaking out.”

We needed “debriefing.” We needed someone to help us “make sense of our story.”

Debriefing is the process of having someone come alongside you, to help you walk through your story—whatever that story is. It can help you begin to make sense of your story, to see it from a fresh perspective, and to learn valuable lessons from it. It can be the key to closing one life chapter in a healthy way, so that you are ready to open a new life chapter.

Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.
— Margaret J. Wheatley, American Author

Types of “Debriefing”

At its core, all “debriefings” are intentional interviews or discussions designed to bring clarity to an experience and draw learning and growth out of it. They can be especially meaningful in helping us to feel “known,” “recognized,”’ or “seen.”

Organizational Debriefing: This type of debriefing is also called an “administrative debriefing” or “exit interview.” This is primarily for the benefit of the organization and often takes place when someone is leaving a position or location. This allows them to learn what went well and what changes need to be made.

Transitional Debriefing: These interviews are designed to help a person rediscover their journey in a way that helps them to grieve losses, make meaning from them, and close chapters in a way that makes them ready to move on. The opening story about our family’s departure from North Africa reveals the need for this type of debriefing.

Personal Debriefing: “Transitional debriefing” and “personal debriefing” overlap in their purpose and process. “Personal debriefing” might cover a difficult experience or season that doesn’t necessarily mark a clear or major transition (for example, debriefing a trip or a non-life-threatening, yet, disturbing experience—like having your car stolen). Being car-jacked, however, would fall into the next category.

Trauma Debriefing: When we experience or see something that has actual or potential threat to life or safety, a “trauma debriefing” by a trained professional is recommended. There is some evidence that this type of debriefing reduces the likelihood of post-traumatic stress. This type of debriefing should be provided by a highly trained professional. In some situations, it’s best to use a licensed professional counselor.  

Team or Group Debriefing: This type of debriefing typically occurs mid-way, or after a team project or event, and is designed to help the group make corrections, build cohesion, and strengthen performance.

The Who of Debriefing

Debriefing yourself: Some minor incidents (a work situation, a disagreement with a spouse or friend) can be processed on your own by just walking yourself through a series of questions in this guide. This is particularly helpful for those who love to process internally, and for seasons of life that were not particularly disturbing or troublesome internally.

Debriefing with a spouse/friend/mentor/supervisor: Sometimes, it’s helpful to have a trusted person come alongside you to listen to your story and to help you make sense of it. Your friend can use this guide—or you can use it with your friends. This is an especially helpful for those who like to think aloud—verbal processors.


Photo by  Clem Onojeghuo  on  Unsplash

Debriefing with a professional: Significant seasons of transition or major, traumatic, “crisis” situations—also known as “critical incidents”— often require a professionally-trained person (“debriefer”) to journey with you down this hard, painful road. It’s just too hard to walk alone.

Sometimes a debriefing does not provide all the help a person needs. A trained counselor may need to be consulted before or after a debriefing if the “critical incident” involves any of the following: significant violence, death, multiple losses, serious assault, and previous emotional problems.

Interested in debriefing with a trained professional?

For a free consultation to determine the next steps forward.

contact us.

The How of Debriefing

Unstructured Debriefing: Some people just need an opportunity to tell their story uninterrupted and to be “heard,” perhaps followed by a few questions for deeper processing.

Structured Debriefing: Others prefer to have someone walk them through their story through a series of questions. This process allows them to look back at their previous life chapter, process it well from multiple angles, and then glean valuable lessons from it to carry with them into their next life chapter.

Now back to my story . . .

Years later, our family went through another tough season—one that left us in a place of confusion and disillusionment.

My spouse and I shared a lot with each other. However, that didn’t seem to be enough. We really needed someone else—someone from the outside—to listen to us and to walk alongside of us through this tough place.

We needed someone to help us unravel the mess of our story.

We met with a “debriefer” from See Beyond and told him our story from start to finish. It was like a bottle was uncapped deep inside of us, and we felt such relief and freedom. Through gentle and wise questions, he helped us to make sense of our story—seeing recurring themes and patterns and identifying lessons learned.

It was very healing. We suddenly felt the cool trickle of relief begin to flow through our dried and cracked hearts and souls. Having someone lay down those “stepping stones” and walk alongside us would allow us to “leave well.” We could then transition and “land” well in our new season of life.

What about you?

Do you carry a story in your suitcase that you have never told anyone?

Do you need someone to “hear” you?

Marci Foucault