Foundations of Debriefing

Basic Principles of Debriefing 

  • The process of debriefing is about the group’s experience and learning, not about what you hope they learn.
  • Have a lesson in mind, but don’t be tied to it.
  • Ask questions that help the group find the lesson. This means no leading questions, like “Don’t you think leading and following were important?”
  • Ask more questions than you make statements.
  • Let more than one person answer the question, but don’t let the group run the discussion.
  • Don’t get stuck on any line of questioning.


What happened in the situation?

  • Listen for descriptions of the stated goal, the understood goal, the strategies to achieve the goal, communication styles and methods, teamwork, etc.  
  • This should be highly descriptive.
    • If groups use vague descriptions like “teamwork” or “communication” or “leadership” do not take these descriptions at face-value.  Ask follow up questions to get them to go deeper, for example:
      • Teamwork: How do you know you acted as a team?  What worked about your teamwork?  How could you have improved your working together as a team?  What were some downfalls to your teamwork?
      • Communication: Give me a specific example of good/bad communication in this activity.    Why was communication so important/necessary in this activity?  How could your communication have been improved?
      • Leadership: What did leadership look like in this activity?  Who took the lead? What role did following take in this activity?
  • It is highly important and should not be skipped.

Sample Questions

  • Explain this activity as though I have not seen it.  
  • What was the goal of the activity?
  • What were the instructions or rules?
  • What did your group do well?  What could have improved?
  • What was the turning point in your success?
  • How did your group make decisions?  What it effective or ineffective?
  • How did your group manage conflict that arose?


What did everything that happened mean?

  • Listen for explanations about why things happened the way they did.  
    • Sometimes, you transition from a “What” question immediately to a “So What” question, and then back to a “What” question.
    • Sometimes, you ask several “What: questions to get to a good transition point. When groups begin to talk about leadership, teamwork, communication, decision-making, etc. in general terms, you can transition to a “So What” question.
    • “So What questions” are often dependent on the responses to the “What” Question.
  • What motivated people?  What made them angry or happy?  What made the group successful or unsuccessful?
  • It is highly important and should not be skipped.

Sample Questions

  • Why is accountability important to your group?
  • What motivates the group?
  • When do we struggle with communication as a group? Can you give me examples?
  • Why is feedback important for us as leaders?
  • How does conflict affect our ability to manage projects?


What did we learn that we can use again?

  • Listen for applications of lessons.  
  • This is the most important part of debriefing!  That said, do not skip to this part without going through “What” and “So What” questions.   
  • After this series of questions, you will close the discussion.  You can close when your gut says they have learned all they can, when the energy wanes, when they start repeating, or when you run out of time and have had a good discussion.  You have several options for closing:
    • Listen for your gut to say: “that’s brilliant.” Say something like, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
    • Ask the group leader if they have anything to add.
    • Ask each person to share the most important thing they learned.
    • Ask each person to write one commitment they have on a post-it.
    • Have the group divide into three subgroups and each brainstorm something the group can start, stop, or continue.
    • Use a quote you have in mind that applies to the activity/lesson.
    • Summarize the discussion in 1-2 sentences.

Sample Questions

  • What does this activity tell them about the strengths of their group?  Their areas for improvement?
  • What’s one commitment each person can make?
  • What are three lessons the group has learned that they can continue to work on in the next activity?

Trusting Your Gut and Displaying Confidence

People often ask, “How will I know when to change topics or close the session?” The truth is that it takes practice and trusting yourself. Practice comes from observing others, asking questions, trying to debrief and succeeding, trying to debrief and failing a little. Preparation is highly important as well.

You might have to act – or “fake it ’till you make it” – a few times. You have to act like you know what you are doing, even if you feel like a novice. Remember that the group does not know that what you are thinking or have planned. Capitalize on that! The more you act confident, the more you will BE confident. Plus. with practice and preparation, the confidence will start to feel less like an act, and more like a natural state of being.