Origins and Concepts Behind Debriefing Sessions

The term “debriefing” refers to conversational sessions that revolve around the sharing and examining of information after a specfic event has taken place. Depending on the situation, debriefing can serve a variety of purposes. For example, these sessions can be used for military, psychological or even academic purposes. While military debriefing is similiar in form to psychological debriefing for civilians, peer debriefing in the field of qualitative research is driven by quite different concepts and practices.

Military Roots of Debriefing Sessions

Originally, debriefing sessions were used strictly for military purposes. During these sessions, unit leaders gathered information from troops returning from operations. This information concerned events that occurred on the battlefield, and so each soldier was encouraged to add to the discussion to ensure a full and accurate account of the operation.

Before long, the additional psychological benefits of debriefing sessions became apparent. By giving the soldiers a voice and respecting their experiences, unit leaders were reinforcing group coherence and increasing morale. Sessions also offered soldiers a chance to purge themselves of emotional weight as they recounted events and acknowledged grief.

Military debriefing came to offer the following benefits:

  • It placed the events of the battlefield into logical order.
  • It cleared up misconceptions regarding the events of the operation.
  • It declared certain information obtained on the field as “confidential.”
  • It acknowledged the soldiers’ grief concerning fatalities and injuries.
  • It acknowledged the accomplishments of soldiers in the unit.
  • It provided soldiers of all ranks with a sense of importance.
  • It provided time for soldiers to share emotions and reactions, normalizing symptoms of anxiety.

Debriefing Civilians

Debriefing sessions are now applied to civilian circumstances. The idea is that individuals who might develop anxiety disorders due to traumatic events can benefit from the same debriefing methods used with soldiers.

Civilian psychological debriefing techniques are applied in situations such as the following:

  • Natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes
  • Vehicular accidents, including airplane crashes
  • Incidents of physical abuse
  • Terrorist attacks

Much like exposure to combat during war, these incidents can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder or similar anxiety disorders. In some cases, an individual may not be directly involved in the incident, but merely witnessing it can even increase the risk of an anxiety disorder. Therefore, qualified mental health personnel gather groups of individuals who have been exposed to traumatic events and offer them debriefing sessions.

Although the situations call for certain changes in the nature of the sessions, the basic methodology utilized remains the same as in military debriefing. Civilians are offered clarification on the events, allowed to exchange emotions and reactions, and educated about anxiety symptoms. Unlike military debriefing, psychological debriefing for civilians only requires participants to be gathered for a single session, which will last for several hours without interruption.

While the effectiveness of psychological debriefing techniques has been called into question, many mental health personnel continue to engage in the sessions.

Peer Debriefing

In 1985, Yvonna S. Lincoln and Egon G. Guba coined the concept of peer debriefing in their book Naturalistic Inquiry. Unlike military debriefing and psychological debriefing for civilians, peer debriefing has little to do with managing and preventing anxiety disorders. Instead, peer debriefing is a tool for qualitative researchers to validate their work.

Lincoln and Guba left much room for customizing the structure of peer debriefing sessions. For example, the sessions can take place either at regular intervals during a particular research project or only after important tasks have been carried out. Also, the peers may or may not be experts in the researcher’s given field. Although most of these decisions are up to the researcher, the following conventions should always apply:

  • Peers responsible for providing feedback and questions regarding the researcher’s work should be impartial parties.
  • The researcher should use the feedback for correcting errors, reflecting on their own views on the information, and exploring potential alternatives in the research process.

Through careful criticism, the impartial peers may aid the researcher in enhancing his own work. However, poorly delivered criticism, such as an overload of negative criticism, may demotivate the researcher. In addition, by employing certain types of questions during the meetings, peers can maximize their contributions to the overall project. Therefore, peers should research strategies for approaching the debriefing sessions. offers information and general tips regarding the many methods of debriefing. Qualitative researchers and individuals acting as impartial peers in peer debriefing sessions will find strategies on conducting meetings and communicating effectively. On the other hand, individuals who are interested in the concepts behind anxiety-reducing sessions will also find facts related to military and psychological debriefing.

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