Debriefing through Journal Writing

Debriefing is an important activity that is conducted after an experiential exercise. It is the process of helping participants to reflect on the experience, gain useful insights, and share these insights with each other.

Sometimes, it is a good idea to replace the group discussion for debriefing with an individual journal-writing approach. Here are the advantages of the written approach to debriefing:

  • It permits participants to reflect on their personal reactions without being distracted by argumentative, defensive, or self-glorifying conversations.
  • It is better suited for introverted individuals who don’t want to reveal their feelings and for members of reticent cultures that frown upon self-disclosure.
  • It protects the confidentiality of participants’ thoughts and opinions.
  • It better fits each participant’s personal pace and schedule.

The open-ended invitation. Simply ask participants to write a page or two of a personal journal reflecting their behaviors, reactions, and insights related to the experiential exercise. Emphasize that this personal journal is for each participant’s eyes only. You can set aside some time immediately after the experiential exercise for this written debriefing or you can recommend that participants write their journals sometime later at their own leisure.

List of concepts. To structure the journal-writing activity a little more tightly, distribute  a list of concepts to participants. For example, after conducting a jolt, you may use this list:  teamwork, assumptions about teams, collaboration within a team, collaboration between teams, competition within a team, competition between teams, win-win and win-lose thinking, and team and organizational focus. Suggest that the participants’ journal entry incorporate these concepts.

Debriefing questionnaire. Another approach to structuring the written debriefing is to distribute a questionnaire to participants. Here is a sample questionnaire based on my six-step model for debriefing:

  • How do you feel about the experiential exercise? What is your reaction to the process and its final outcome?
  • What important things happened during the exercise?
  • What did you learn from the exercise? What insights did you gain about other people's behavior? About your own behavior?
  • How does the exercise relate to real-world events?
  • In what different ways could you modify this activity? What would happen as a result of these changes?
  • If we were to conduct this exercise all over again, how would you behave differently? As a result of your new insights, how would you behave differently in your workplace?

Sharing insights. One thing that you lose in the written approach is the sharing of insights that takes place during a debriefing discussion. Here is a strategy that I use to preserve participants' anonymity while giving an opportunity to find out what the others are thinking: I invite the participants drop an anonymous photocopy of their journal in a box. I collect the contributions, edit out any identifying information, and prepare a set of interesting excerpts. I distribute copies of this document to all participants.

After conducting your next simulation or jolt or role play, experiment with this approach to debriefing. To improve your facilitation skills, write a journal entry about your experiences with the written debriefing process.