Debriefing Part 1: What’s that all about?

Have you ever heard someone say, “Let’s debrief” or “We’ll finish today by debriefing” but never really understood what that meant? In this first article about debriefing, we’ll discuss the origin, definition and techniques for effective debriefing.

Have you ever heard someone say “Let’s debrief” or “We’ll finish today by debriefing” but never really understood what that meant? Sometimes debriefing happens and we don’t even know it! In this series of articles, we’ll explore what debriefing is, techniques for debriefing, age appropriate debriefing and best practices.

Let’s get started with the origination of the word debrief. Debrief was originally a military word that has come to be loved by individuals who facilitate events and meetings. In the military, when people are sent on a mission they are given a briefing of information that’s important to their success. When those people come back from their mission, they would “debrief” about what happened by asking questions and sharing the information they learned.

According to, the current use of the term refers to conversational sessions that revolve around the sharing and examining of information after a specific event has taken place. When we think about events that need debriefing, we might think about vacations, conferences, meetings or workshops. While those are all accurate events that may need debriefing, there can also be less formal events such as a work shift, an icebreaker or activity, a cross training or other times that a group might need to stop and check in with each other.

Debriefing is often a key part of an event that’s missed. It’s common to feel closure once a meeting, event or activity is complete and it’s just as easy tomove onto the next item on the to-do list. However, closure really happens once a discussion occurs where everyone has the opportunity for input.  suggests facilitators understand the following key principles of debriefing:

  • Organizing is 90 percent follow-up. Debriefs are one of our most important tools for following up after an event or activity. Build a debrief into the end of every activity so that it becomes part of the routine.
  • Why we debrief. It’s for many reasons which include celebrating hard work, troubleshooting challenges, building relationships, providing closure and making plans for the next activity. We also use debriefs to build and develop leaders, as they provide feedback, reward successes and identify opportunities for future training.
  • How we debrief. We debrief in teams and one-on-one. When debriefing a bigger or more complicated event, coordinators of each area of responsibility should debrief their teams. For example, the recruitment coordinator should debrief the recruitment team and the media coordinator should debrief the media team.
  • It’s an opportunity. Use the debrief as an opportunity to reinforce goals and hold people accountable. If something didn't get done, ask why? What impact did that have? How does this affect the next event? Ask open-ended questions to generate conversation.
  • Next steps. End the debrief with a clear plan for next steps. This might include more training on a particular skill, setting the time and date for the next organizing meeting and more.

Stay tuned for future articles in this series on debriefing. For more information about effective meetings, visit Michigan State University Extension.

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