“The learning is in the debrief” 

7 reasons why Debrief is the most powerful part of your protocol

by Penelope Preen (Penny Kynigou), NSRF International Facilitator

When I started out in CFG coaching, I found the idea of debriefing a protocol very daunting. Debriefing had not been part of my life as a learner and I wasn’t too sure of the point of it. Why, I wondered, is it necessary, or useful, to spend time at the end of a protocol discussing the outcome and the process? Wasn’t it all over by then? What are the right kind of questions to ask? What do I do if no-one has anything to say?

I started my internship with David Nelson, another NSRF International Facilitator, and my close colleague and collaborator at ACS Athens.

 “Watch!” David would say, “The learning is in the debrief. Just ask the group, ‘So, how did that go for you…?’ and notice what happens. You have to trust the process.”

As I have gained experience, debriefing has become my favorite part of facilitating. Here are 7 of my favorite insights from debriefing and why they are effective.

  1. “How did that go for you?”

When we debrief the participants after a protocol we give them an open invitation to share their thoughts and feelings. This is one of the most powerful ways in which groups build trust and a sense of belonging. The message is profound. Everyone here is valued and your individual experience is important to the group’s process.

  1. “I’d like to ask you to give this a try and there’ll be an opportunity to debrief it later.”

As facilitators we can ask our groups to try something for the first time, even though it might seem unusual or counter-intuitive, and then during the debrief encourage participants to share their experiences and feelings. Strong feelings of bonding and trust develop as participants share moments of vulnerability, and the knowledge that there will be an opportunity to debrief later helps the group to move into the “risk zone,” the place where learning is most powerful.

  1. “What do you think is the impact of…”

Debriefing gives processing time when participants are asked to reflect on a shared experience and think critically about how it was structured. Learning is always more powerful and “sticky” when participants co-create for themselves the purpose behind, for example, the presenter turning away as the group discusses their question.

  1. “How might you use this in your work?”

Debrief is a critical piece in weaving new content into the fabric of our thought. When learning is relevant to our lives, we retain what was learned. During the debrief we offer a chance for participants to articulate how new ideas might be used in context, which in itself increases the likelihood of them actually being used in the future. 

  1. “Does anyone feel the same? Does anyone feel differently?”

Hearing the opinions of others is helpful. Some find their opinions are validated as they hear others share similar beliefs, while some realize that their feelings are purely personal and others have experienced the event differently. This makes debriefing a powerful tool in dealing with negativity in the group. When someone reports a disagreeable perspective, hear them out and then calmly turn to the group and ask, “Does anyone feel the same? Does anyone feel differently?” If that feels too risky, give participants time to write a mini reflection, collect them after the meeting and then share back anonymously with the group at the next meeting or, if the content is troublesome enough, via email between meetings. Be sure to keep these reflections anonymous, in either case.

  1. “What worked and what didn’t?”

One of my favorite uses of debriefing is to ask my 5th grade students, ”How did that go for you?” at the end of a class activity. I have learned so much, not only in terms of getting a clearer picture of their level of skill and understanding, but also in how to better deliver the lesson the next time. Students will regularly pinpoint areas of confusion, or aspects of an activity that were especially interesting, and frequently make creative suggestions to improve the lesson for next year’s class. They take a real pride in making a contribution and love to feel a sense of shared ownership over the curriculum as it develops.

  1. The ‘Elephant in the Room’ phenomenon 

Last but not least, it is true that sometimes groups will have very little to say during debrief. 

“So, how did that go for you?”

“Oh, fine.”

“Yes, I thought it was interesting.”

“Yup, it was good.”

This kind of energy in the room can actually be an indication of an underlying tension in the group which you need to surface and address in order for the group to be able to move forward. Participants often retreat into glib responses and a culture of niceness in order to avoid directly addressing conflicts. When faced with this level of response, a first move you can make as a facilitator is to ask participants to take a moment to jot down their thoughts. and then follow up with a pair share, and then share out to the group by going around the circle. Often people are more willing to share concerns one to one and then, receiving confirmation that they are not alone in their perception, will air the issue with the group. 

When a group is deeply reluctant to discuss the undiscussable, I have found it helpful to ask the participants to note down their undiscussable issues on sticky notes during Affinity Mapping. This removes them from the personal sphere and enables the group to them sort, categorize and own them collectively, and the elephant lurking in the room appears ready to be addressed (and is often less scary than originally expected)!

Conclusion: Debriefing has now become my favorite part of facilitating! You never know what will arise. Do you have any great debriefing stories to share? We’d love to hear them.

Wooden letter blocks spelling out the words "Reflect, revise, rethink"