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Training Room:
Learning through Process:
A Simple Model for Debriefing

By John Kanengieter
Director of the Professional Training Institute of NOLS

Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 2000, Vol. 16, No. 2

One aspect of leadership training involves the ability to process and learn from experiences.

At NOLS we assist learning through the tricky art of debriefing. It is a term that is very common around NOLS, and an integral part of successfully processing an experience. You can transfer these same concepts to your work environment and projects.

I. What happened? Facts

Any event or problem solving session has a story. Let members tell their story about the day from their perspective. If there is conflict in the group or you sense stress, it should be important for everyone to have the opportunity to speak. Example questions include:

  • What were your personal and group goals?
  • What was the route that you took today and why?
  • Were there any close calls that happened on your small group?
  • Were there disagreements in decisions and how were they resolved?

If it was anything but a routine day, allow each person to tell his or her "story" uninterrupted from his/her perspective and experience.

Pitfalls: Do not let students or yourself start the analysis of the event even if their mistakes seem painfully obvious to you. Your role is to be an objective facilitator and your goal is to get the story out in the open. Remember, "just the facts ma'am."

II. What Now? Feelings

After the events are on the table, it is important for the participants to note the impacts and feelings these events prompted. Students need to make meaning out of the event, including their reaction to it, to grow and learn. Were they stressed? Afraid? Angry? Having a blast? By doing this, the students are also able to note the effect of their actions on others. Questions that work towards feeling statements include:

  • Pick the best moments of the day for this group.
  • At what point was the day most stressful for you?
  • How did you feel when the group took some of your weight?
  • What one word would describe your thoughts or feelings on the day right now?
  • What are you most proud of today?
  • Were there any times that you didn't know what to do and felt stuck?

Pitfalls: Watch for blaming in the group and be careful that you and others don't invalidate the feelings of a student. Remember, each person has the right to his/her own feelings even if you disagree with his/her perceptions. Be prepared for conflict and commit to exploring it then or later.

III. What Next? Future

At this point participants have a framework for analysis of their events. What lessons have they gleaned from this experience that they can apply in the next similar situation? Preferably, you would guide the students in their own learning by asking questions, but do not be afraid to offer direct feedback if the point isn't coming across. Sample questions are:

  • What would they do differently?
  • What factors went into creating the times that went really well?
  • What advice would they give future leaders facing the same situations?
  • What should we continue to do in the future?

Ask students to pick out which leadership skills were emphasized and which were absent in their event. Make sure the students leave with a plan about what they will continue to do and what they will do differently.

Pitfalls: Don't over analyze a situation if the lesson seems clear to the students. Keep it simple and objective. Be sure to follow-up with positive reinforcement if you see improvements in the students in the future.

One of the hallmarks of a NOLS education is the ability to transfer the leadership skills gained on an expedition and apply them to the world back home. As a leader in any organized group, it is important to know how to negotiate through the tricky terrain of process to gain peak performance from other group members. Debriefing an activity or issue is a great step towards that peak performance.


John Kanengieter is the director of the Professional Training Institute (PTI) of NOLS. The Professional Training Institute provides training for organizations and skill seminars for outdoor professionals in leadership, outdoor skills, and risk management consulting. For more information visit /pti/ or email pti@nols.edu.


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