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Debriefing Yourself

Thinking Last week I did a training on facilitation for a group of 10 trainers. One of the strategies we discussed was how to debrief on experiential activities using Thiagi's Six Phases of Debriefing. It occurred to me later, that these are great questions to ask ourselves as part of developing our personal reflective practice and that they can be applied to virtually any experience, not just to formal or structured learning activities.

Thiagi's Six Phases of Debriefing

  • How Do You Feel?--Through my continuing work with The Artist's Way, I'm learning that one of the most powerful questions we can ask ourselves in any learning situation is "how do you feel?" Our feelings give us clues about a lot of deeper issues that surface when we're learning new information. For example, I'm finding that in circumstances where I've had a less than positive experience that I want to learn from, I often have deep feelings of shame. This shame springs from a need to be perfect, but then it also gets in the way of me really learning. That's when I have to deal with the shame first, before I can go any further. Thinking first about my feelings is a way to get clear and be able to separate out my emotions from the actual learning experience.
  • What Happened?--This is more of a data-gathering phase of reflection. For this question, we describe what happened as clearly and in as much detail as we can. One challenge can be objectivity, though. If we haven't separated out our feelings about the event from the actual facts, we can find that our perceptions of what happened are less than accurate.
  • What Did You Learn?--This is where we draw out some of the larger lessons or principles from the experience. I find that I learn both from the actual experience, as well as my emotional responses to it. For example, during the training on facilitation, I inadvertently switched from facilitation to "lecture mode." I felt an immediate drop in energy in the room, both from the participants and within myself. This turned out to be a sort of mini learning moment for us, as I pointed out what happens when we move from facilitating learning, to directing it. This gave all of us an immediate sense of how facilitation really differs from instruction, and how it can feel different to both the facilitator and the participants.
  • How Does This Relate to the Real World?--This question is about relevance. How does what we've learned tie back into our daily lives?
  • What If?--This is a sort of speculation phase. We consider how we might apply what we've learned in different contexts. How might the principles change if we're dealing with different people, situations or environments? If I'm honest, this is one area of learning that I don't always explore. While I may reflect on an experience and try to tie it back to my practice, I don't always spend time thinking about the "what ifs." I think I'm probably missing something here as a result and want to include that more often in my debriefing of myself.
  • What Next?--Finally, we consider what actions we'll take next as a result of our reflection. How do we want to apply this learning going forward? What other learning activities might we want to devise to further explore some of our ideas and reflections? Of course the real challenge in this is actually applying the learning once we've developed the action plan. I find that it's a constant process of noticing and reminding myself that I wanted to do things differently. Half the time, it's the noticing of me engaging in old behaviors that's really the most difficult though!

Thinking_2 What I like about applying these questions to personal and professional practice is that they provide a nice structure to the reflection process. I find that we have a general bias toward action in the world, but without the corresponding reflection, we often miss key lessons and ideas. It's easy to get caught up in a cycle of constant action and engaging in the same activities repeatedly, long past their real usefulness. Scheduling a sort of structured debriefing with ourselves can be a way to combat this tendency.

What do you think?  Do you have regular learning debriefs with yourself? What does that look like? What do you think of Thiagi's questions? How else could we use them outside of a formal classroom or learning event?

Photos via stenbough and gutter.


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Great post Michele. Too often I tend to forget the power of raising learning awareness and stimulating reflection straight after a learning activity (How will you apply this to the real world? How has this changed your perspectives, what are your thoughts in relation to the new bits of learning, etc...). This post is an excellent reminder and certainly, next time my training plans will include sound debriefing sessions.

I actually debrief using the Kolb's experiential learning model that was drummed into my head during teacher training. Basically, I look at what happened and try to figure out why. I then try to come up with some general guidelines or "lessons learned" or hypotheses. Then I try them out and start the process.

I find blogging helps me to organize my thoughts more systematically, forcing me to reflect on why something happened and put into words some general concepts (guidelines, lessons learned, hypotheses). I then have a written record that I can go back to when I try things out. This is the one thing I have been lack in and I find myself only going back when someone else asks me about it (as you have done a couple of times through the work literacy blog).

A stupid question, Michele: what's the difference between reflection and debriefing?

Emanuele--I sometimes forget the power of debriefing, too, so part of writing this post was a reminder to myself of how useful it is. :-)

Virginia--I see Thiagi's questions as being a sort of extension of Kolb, which is a big part of how I end up structuring most training sessions. I agree with you that blogging is a great way to do the reflection piece. For me, it helps if I have some more structure to use in reflection so that I hit all the pieces.

Sarah--you should know by now that there are no stupid questions! :-) I would say that in one sense, debriefing and reflection are the same thing--we are looking at an event and trying to learn from it. If there's a difference, I tend to see debriefing as something we do with a group, while reflection is a more solitary form. Practically speaking, though, I'd say that reflection and debriefing are essentially the same.

Good blogging prompts, too!

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