“It’s All in the Debrief”

What comes to mind when you hear the word “debrief”? If you watch spy movies, it might be James Bond passing by Miss Moneypenny on the way to let M know what transpired on his latest mission. In your work environment, it may look more like a closed-door meeting following the end of a project to candidly discuss its successes and challenges. The stakes of your project may be different than 007’s, but what’s discussed in the debrief determines whatever happens next. It’s all in the debrief.

Over more than two decades of leading team building activities and initiatives, I’ve learned that at any given time, the group I’m working with can bring something to the activity I’ve never seen before, with unpredictable results. One of the quieter members of the group might jump in with surprisingly powerful leadership, or someone might have an eye-opening revelation about how they interact with others. Or disagreements and frustrations might break out in the group, and the whole team may feel more challenged at the end of the activity than at the beginning. These are all opportunities for a meaningful discussion, and the chance for significant impact on the team. What happened? What did you learn? How do you feel about what you learned? How is what you’ve learned relevant beyond this moment? The challenges and frustration felt by a group, when they are heard, respected and discussed, can lead to some dramatic breakthroughs. It takes friction for a wheel to move any distance. Again, it’s all in the debrief.

“It’s all in the debrief” can be a helpful phrase whether you’re working with a team or not. If you work with a team, any moment of frustration, success, challenge, joy – or any other heightened emotion – is fertile ground for reflection and growth. But this is equally true on an individual level. A high ropes course activity can be exhilerating, but it can be transformative if the climber reflects on other areas of their life where they experience the same fears, and how to take the next step there also. If you’re a regular reader of Building Bridges Leadership’s posts, you may have seen the posts on Poison Ivy Privilege; just this week, my body decided that after years of not reacting to poison ivy it was time to catch up; a particularly nasty reaction has led to some ongoing debriefing with myself – in particular, how does this reaction help me to reflect further on my privilege? While I don’t have the answers at this point, it’s worth sitting in the questions. After all, it’s all in the debrief.

How can this idea of “It’s all in the debrief” be useful for us this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Take on debriefing something – anything – at least once a day, with yourself, and/or with others. This might take 30 seconds, ten minutes, or longer.

  1. Use the debriefing framework: 1) What happened? (i.e. the objective facts, to get everyone on the same page.) 2) What did you learn? 3) How do you feel about what you learned? 4) How is what you’ve learned relevant beyond this moment? Be comfortable with uncomfortable silences, and dig deeper than you think the topic deserves.
  2. If you manage a team… Ask your team for suggestions of something to debrief during your regular team meeting. Start with something small; possibly something trivial to have some fun with it. Use the framework outlined above, and see what comes out of it. Look for meaning where you might not expect any. You might be surprised.
  3. Look for things to debrief in your own life. This might be a challenging conversation, an interaction with a client, an experience of creativity, or any moment of heightened emotion. Use the debriefing framework to reflect on what what you could learn for the future. Ask yourself open-ended questions. Write down your reflections, and notice what comes up.. You might want to revisit your notes later; having someone else as a sounding-board for what you learn can be helpful, but it can also be helpful to re-read your reflections at a later date.

Try these out this week and let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts or questions, post in our Facebook group. You can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox!

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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