Debriefing and Defusing

Debriefing and defusing are terms referring to therapeutic processes that are used following a severely traumatic event (often called a 'critical incident)'. Listening is a key to effective debriefing and defusing.


The major purpose of debriefing is to bring together a group of people who have shared a traumatic experience, so they can openly discuss their reactions and gain mutual support.


Defusing refers to a less formal process of support. It may simply involve 'checking in' with a colleague, or offering to get a friend a coffee. The act of defusing, as the name suggests, generally involves helping someone else feel supported, and perhaps even allow for informal opportunities for them to release thoughts and feelings.


Debriefing usually requires a single session crisis intervention designed to reduce and prevent debilitating psychological symptoms by:

  • promoting the processing of emotions
  • the ventilation, acknowledgement and validation of reactions
  • the design of any therapeutic actions that may be important for participants in the immediate future
  • the preparation and planning for possible future experiences.

Debriefing can often circumvent common attempts to be helpful that may in fact prove otherwise. Too often in our attempts to help friends or colleagues we can feel pressured to offer suggestions, make explanations, or 'fix' their discomfort. Such comments as 'you'll get over it' or 'just don't think about it' can be offered with the best of intentions, yet can often contribute to the person feeling unheard and not understood, thus even more alone.


Effective debriefing requires a great deal of skill. The process typically occurs when high levels of emotion, vulnerability, uncertainty and confusion can readily cloud the progress and judgement of those who have experienced the trauma. In our experience, we have found that the effectiveness of any debriefing process can be greatly enhanced when: 

  • Intervention is prompt and occurs as soon as possible following the incident
  • The participants are given ample opportunity to express their reactions and support each other in an open and permissive atmosphere
  • Attention is given to any immediate steps that may be useful for participants to take to assist in their recovery
  • Any further steps that may be useful for the group to consider and put into action.