Let's Debrief!

“Augghh, Mom! Stop it! You always do that,” snarls my daughter. She’s just shared some small quip a friend made at school, or maybe it was a little failure or frustration.

 “What?’ I responded - not exactly taken aback, she is a 12-year-old after all, but not quite sure what I’d done this time.

“You always do that! You always turn everything into some kind of learning experience. Sheesh.”

I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m a parent who’s grown up in the age of “teachable moments.” I’m also sure, she’s right - that I’m especially obnoxious about it. It’s an occupational hazard. You see, our work is built on the premise  - one we learned from our great mentor, Thiagi, the guru of interactional strategies for learning,(www.thiagi.com) - that experiential activities are incredibly valuable learning tools. And, what, after all, is life, but a series of experiential activities?

Thiagi also taught us that an activity is “just an excuse for a good debrief.” So, we are clear in our work with our clients - and, as my daughter has discovered - in our lives, that the value of the experience comes not just from that experience itself, but from how it is processed.

But creating a “good” debrief isn’t always so easy. (Just check in on your local news channel or Facebook page after a recent current event to see it done badly.) What makes a good debrief?

A good debrief helps people:

  • capture their experience
  • understand and process the learning from their experience
  • think about how to apply the learning from their experience

Not surprisingly, we believe the best way to achieve the objectives above is to ask open-ended questions, rather than to tell participants what their experience was supposed to be or mean. Here are some high-level questions to get you started:

Capturing the Experience:

  • How Do You Feel?
  • What Happened?
  • What strategies did you employ?
  • What delighted you?
  • What surprised you?
  • What impacted you the most?


Understanding and Processing the Learning

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t work?·      
  • What strategies did you discover?
  • What did you learn?
  • What principles will you take away?

Applying the Learning

  • How does this apply to real life?
  • Where else can you apply these principles?
  • What will you do differently?
  • What will you commit to trying?

After my daughter reprimanded me, I apologized, told her I understood how annoying that must be, and then went on to riff on the topic - debriefing, if you will, her comment that I always turn everything into a learning experience. I said, “Yeah, when I die, I’ll probably think, ‘I’m sure I can learn something from this.’” You should put “Let’s Debrief” on my tombstone.
She didn’t even crack a smile. 


Last week, a young fashion design student I was coaching said it to me this way, “If you live, you learn. If you die, you teach.”


In any moment there so many lessons to be gathered,  so many insights to gain, so much wisdom to share - or ignore.  May we all continue to hone our debriefing skills, and may we all continue to grow and learn from one another.