Debriefing – The Benefits and Pitfalls

Introduction – definition of “debrief”

Doing research into debriefing is tricky: Many people do “debriefs” – so what does it mean and how do you tell a good one from a bad one? Is it possible to take away the variable that comes from something being so undefined? For this study, I decided to be narrow in my definition in order to ensure the debriefs commented on were of good quality: The debrief had to be structured in a way that takes the debriefee gradually down from the facts and their thoughts into their emotions, and then brings them back out the other side, looking at the good things that had happened in the assignment. The debriefer therefore needed to have been trained in this way of doing debriefs. See Appendix 1 for the guideline structure stipulated in order for people to take part. The survey questions are in Appendix 2. Respondents were solely from within the Christian mission sector, since that is where this structure of debriefing is currently practised.


I had 36 responses via Survey Monkey, from people who had been in a total of 44 different countries (maximum of 5 per person), from periods of just 2 months to as long as 37 years (total spent abroad in a number of locations, or 28 years in one place). What was astounding (and very reassuring) was that 100% of those who responded would recommend a debrief to others. Over 80% of those debriefs happened within a 2 month period of returning home.

The assignments involved a vast range of challenges, as below.

A large number of respondents (over 60%) ranked the challenge of their assignment as 7 out of 9. The remainder were as low as 2 and as high as 9, but they were the exceptions, the majority being between 5 and 8.

The helpfulness of the debriefs spanned 4-9 out of 9, 75% being 6 or over, see below.

Three of the four respondents ranking their debrief as 4/9 were couples who were debriefed together and would like to have been debriefed separately, and the same number said it was too short, presumably, a large amount of that was because two people were being debriefed together.

What was interesting was comparing ratings for debriefs carried out by companies or independent individuals. Unfortunately I didn’t ask exactly what “independent” meant, hence it could have been an outsider coming in to an organisation to do the debrief, or going somewhere else entirely, to a retreat centre or private individual. However, 73% of those debriefed independent of their company rated the debrief 7 or above, compared with 43% of those debriefed by their company.

75% felt that the debrief was just the right length, with many people having had approximately two hours allotted to them. The longest debrief was a week, run by regional leaders of a company. The next two longest debriefs (both of them run by the organisation; a weekend and 6 hours) were rated as too short. Of those debriefed by their company, 33% felt it was too short, compared with 13% of those independently debriefed. This is probably an indication of how much a company has to fit it when they see people, and corners unfortunately get cut. No one felt their debrief had been too long.

Some of the positives of debriefing can be summed up in the following quotes:

“It made me feel valued, and that the placement the team had been on was also valued by the organisation.”

“A listening ear who also knew when best to interject!”

“Helped me to see how I really felt about some of the things that happened.”

“It was a relaxed and confidential space and didn’t feel pressured to disclose unless I wanted to.”

“Receiving reassurance that the pain I felt was understandable.”

“The debriefers gave us as much time & space as we needed, asked intelligent probing questions, were genuinely interested.”

“The person was good at listening and interested and grasped what we described well.”

“She took time with me and didn’t back away from difficult questions. She cared about ME, not just my work.”

“Being asked specific questions about how things may have affected me that I couldn’t have articulated had I not been asked the questions.”

Some of the less helpful things that were noted:

“Not related to actions or changes. Just talking. Not connected with agency as confidential therefore nothing was actually resolved with agency. Just listened to.”

“There was too much to look back on in 2 hours so some issues had to be skirted over. The debrief was for me to process leaving the organisation after 31 yrs so not to do with one thing.”

“Not in depth enough.”

“I think it would have been good to have several sessions rather than one long one, possibly with a questionnaire to prepare for the sessions.”

“The de-brief was for us as a couple. That was fine, but we didn’t really get anywhere further than our own reflection and talking had taken us.”

“It was quite hurried as I had a long trip to do at either end of the debrief. It might have been more helpful had I been able to stay overnight but this was not possible because of my mum.”

“Initially it felt like another pressure and thing to tick off at a time when there were so many other things to do. We did feel a bit of pressure from the mission to get this done early which I can understand but I am not sure we had even had time to process ourselves. Perhaps a two or even three part debrief would be good over several months. The first one to cover immediate needs etc”

“There was a lot to talk about in one session. Unable to cover everything fully. It may have been better to do over a couple of sessions. Also, no follow up after the debrief.”

I could take each of the above comments and work through them in turn, but I am not sure of the value in that. Suffice it to say that many of the things mentioned above can be remedied with the right logistics in place and organisations not rushing their debriefs or squashing them into a day packed with too many other things. On the other side, the positive facets of the debriefs were repeated time and time again – a non-judgemental, confidential space to be really heard and understood gives people a sense of value and helps them to process what they have been through.

The debrief was valued as a major part of people’s support system in coming home. It ranked first amongst a list of things people found helpful on their return, and a close second was spending time with others who have returned from living overseas, who obviously can relate to the returnees better than anyone:

Again, interestingly there was a marked difference between the relative values of the debrief for those debriefed by their company vs those debriefed independently:


The benefits of debriefs definitely out-weigh the pitfalls. The fact that 100% of respondents would recommend a debrief to others speaks volumes. Whilst recognising that not all organisations can afford the cost of having independent people do all of their debriefs, and many organisations do them well anyway, there certainly seems to be a case for underlining that organisations must not cut corners, especially squashing debriefs into small slots and not giving them the necessary time.

My thoughts are taken further to wonder if debriefs are so helpful for those returning from missionary (and aid and development, as stipulated by People In Aid’s 2003 Code of Best Practice) overseas assignments, then why are we not spreading this wider, to the corporate community and international school teachers as they return? My theory is: we should be.

© Helen Watts, February 2015

Appendix 1: Outline of a typical structured debrief

1. Introductions

Who you are; who they are

Purpose of debriefing – confidential, lasts 2-3 hours

General details – where, how long, when returned

Overview – how was it?

2. Identifying what was most troubling

Identify 3 events / issues which were most stressful, upsetting or troubling – the worst parts (e.g. incident; disturbing sight; relationship / communication difficulty; job / agency difficulties; overwork; boredom; culture / living conditions; being far from friends / family; health problem

3. Facts, thoughts and feelings

Take each event / issue in turn: ask about the facts, then thoughts, then feelings. DO NOT RUSH!

4. Any other aspects you want to talk about?

5. Symptoms

Did you experience stress-related symptoms at any point while overseas? What about now? – Take them through handout to indicate typical symptoms

6. Normalising and teaching

• Symptoms are normal in the circumstances – you are not over-reacting

• What methods can you use to reduce stress?

• What support is available to you / who can you talk to?

7. Anything that was positive?

Was there anything good / meaningful in your time overseas? What was best? What did you learn? Are you glad you went?

8. Return ‘home’

How has the return ‘home’ been? Talk about normal reverse culture shock and adjustment

9. The future

• Ask about future plans

• Tell them where they can get further help if they want it (offer to make referral if appropriate)

• Ask whether they have any questions, other things they want to say

• Offer a follow-up meeting if appropriate. Otherwise arrange to follow up by phone or email (2-3 weeks later) to see how they are

10. Closing

Summarise the session, ask how they are feeling now.

Debriefing outline courtesy of Debbie Hawker:

D. Hawker (2014). Debriefing Aid Workers and Missionaries: A Comprehensive Manual, 11th edition. People In Aid, London.

Appendix 2: Debriefing Survey Questions

1. Please list the country(ies) you lived in,length of time spent there and when you returned (even if this is only temporary too!)

2. How long after returning did you have your debrief?

Options: Within a week; within a month; within two months; within 6 months; within a year; other (please specify)

3. Was it carried out by the company you worked for or an independent debriefer?

Options: My company; independent debriefer

4. Please rate on a scale of 1-9:

How challenging was the assignment? (1=not at all, 9=very)

How helpful was the debrief? (1=not at all, 9=very)

5. What challenges did your assignment include? (choose as many as appropriate)

Options: child-related issues; civil unrest; cross-cultural frustrations; financial issues; health issues; identity issues; marital difficulties; team conflict; trauma; work-related issues; other (please specify)

6. Please comment on anything in the debrief you found helpful.

7. Please comment on anything you found unhelpful in the debrief, and make suggestions as to how it could have been made better.

8. How was the length of the debrief?

Options: Too short; just right; too long; any comments

9. Would you recommend a debrief to others you know coming back?

10. Altogether, what forms of support have you had since coming back? Please rank the three most helpful:

Options: Debriefing; Talking to family / friends; Having a retreat; Reading a book on re-entry; Help from church; Help from organisation; Speaking to a counsellor; Speaking to a coach; Talking with other people who have returned from overseas; Other or comments.

Responses were given 3 points for most helpful, 2 points for 2nd most helpful, and 1 point for 3rd most helpful.