Debriefing a Traumatic Event

I’m reposting this in response to events in Ukraine and other current events. It was originally designed in response to the Columbine high school shootings, and used with a group of facilitators a few days after 9/11. It has been translated into French, Chinese, and Urdu.

We would like to offer this conversation to people to use with colleagues, friends and
family to begin to process traumatic situations and respond to them productively.
This conversation is adapted from a conversation in Jo Nelson’s book “The Art of
Focused Conversation for Schools, first published in May, 2001 by New Society Publishers and The Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs, p. 155. The third edition was published by iUniverse in 2013.

A group member can help the group guide its thinking with the following questions. The
sequence of questions is designed to gradually move from surface observation through
personal reflection, thoughtful interpretation, and resolution.

Debriefing a Traumatic Event
Aims of the conversation:
To talk about personal experiences of the trauma
To face reality and begin to deal with it productively
To move from shock to beginning to come to terms with the situation

This event has shaken all of us. Let’s take a little time to reflect on what’s happened, so
we can come to terms with it. I’m going to ask some questions that will help us gradually
process what happened. I would like you to let everyone have their own answers – no
interrupting, arguing, or judging what anyone says.
Objective Questions:
Imagine you were a video camera recording what you have seen and heard happening
since the first events. What actions, words, phrases, objects, and scenes are recorded on
your tape?
Let’s get everything out – the first events, then everything that has happened since — so
we all have as full a picture as possible of what has happened to this point.
Reflective Questions:
What were your first reactions?
What shocked or frightened you most about this incident?
What images or previous experiences were triggered for you?
How else did you find yourself reacting?
Interpretive Questions:
What impact has this had on you personally? How are you different now?
How we different as a group or as a society as a result of these events?
How has our view of the world changed?
What might have been some contributing factors to why this happened?
What might be some of the underlying issues behind all of this?
What might we learn from this?
Decisional Questions:
What can we do to deal with the situation in the short term?
What are some things we can do to begin to deal with the underlying issues and prevent
events like this from happening again?
What can we do to help each other?
We will undoubtedly continue to reflect on this. If you need help, please be sure to ask
for it.

Some of these questions are difficult to answer, so if there are few spoken answers, don’t
worry. The very fact of raising these questions and following this flow allows deeper
reflection later. It may be helpful to print out the questions for people to take with them
for later reflection.

The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools: Over 100 Ways to Guide Clear Thinking and Promote Learning has nearly 200 sample conversations for parents, teachers, staff, and parents. It can be ordered through the publisher,

About jofacilitator

On Sept 1, 2020, I celebrated 50 years of work with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, facilitating meetings, groups, communities, and organizations, making it possible for ordinary people to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives. I retired on December 31, 2021, but still volunteer with the organization.
This entry was posted in Facilitation Stories, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Debriefing a Traumatic Event

  1. Becky Groff says:

    Jo – do you mind sending this to me via email? Also with a word about how retirement is going.
    Thank you for your consideration. Becky


  2. Kathy McGrane says:

    Your generosity is outstanding! Thank you 😊 Kathy

    Sent from my iPhone



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