To debrief, or not to debrief

23 09 2011

licenced under creative commons from umami typepad

I’m chatty.

Yes, I know that will surprise you. But I am.

While my Myers Briggs personality type puts me as quite evenly balanced between Extrovert and Introvert, most people who meet me would say I was definitely an “E”. (I like to say I am evenly balanced and can move across both aspects. However, I digress.)

So when it comes to the question of whether debriefing is beneficial or not, for me it sits firmly in the yes column. I both gain energy from interaction with others, and defray anxiety in the same way. (My mother tells a story of me changing schools. As she drove me to school I chattered away nervously and by the time we got there I was fine and she was a bundle of nerves. Very effective from my point of view!) While I realise this is a trivial example, the same applies in some of the traumatic workplace incidents I have experienced – including suicides and the murder of a colleague.

So for me debriefing – talking out stressful and traumatic situations – works. However the research demonstrates that debriefing is not for everyone.

The aim of debriefing in instances of trauma is to allow the person to acknowledge and work through the events and their emotions and thoughts about the events. It aims to prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is about bringing into the open, acknowledging and processing how you have reacted, responded and recorded the events and its impact upon you.

Does talking about it work for everyone? The literature is divided. Some studies however go as far as saying it can be damaging. A Cochrane review also recommends that the practice cease. (This study was based on single session interventions however.)

In the absence of a single agreed position in the literature, I introduce opinion and speculation….

I suspect that whether debriefing works for you depends on a number of things, including the type of personality you are. And I mean that in a much more in-depth manner than the personality profiles proposed by Myers Briggs.

If you are an extrovert in the true sense of the word (as opposed to the pop-psych sense), and respond to stressful situations by becoming more extrovert, then interaction with others is how you work through your thoughts. Debriefing may work for you.

If you are an introvert (or respond to stressful situations by becoming introverted) and you prefer to work things through in your head without the distractions and inputs of others, then it may make it worse.

On top of that, it requires a skilled debriefer – and possibly the right person for the right job. I have had debriefings following traumatic workplace incidents where I did not connect with the counsellor at all. It was a waste of time and instead I debriefed with colleagues (and they with me) who had a much better understanding of what was going on and who were going through the same thing. It worked well for us because we were a tight team, all had a fairly well developed sense of EQ and felt the same way about what had occurred.

But there came a point in the debriefing process when I needed to stop talking about it. It was time to move on. I couldn’t stay in the horror and pain. Part of the debriefing process for me was realising that life did go on, and getting on with my life.

Letting go was important, when the time was right. Perhaps for some people that was where they started. Sublimation, denial and suppression are genuine survival techniques, and they work. Sometimes it is just better not to think about it.

Does talking about it help for you? Or would you prefer to retreat to quietness and work it through yourself?

If this post interested you, you might also like Where are they now? and Life and Death on the Office.

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