Why debriefing should be part of your practice – and how to do it

By Judith Vonberg

Like all helping professions, being an audiologist can be stressful. You’re often exposed to difficult stories, and you may see clients who are frustrated or distressed. 

To avoid compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma – and to ensure you’re able to keep treating your clients in the long term – it’s vital that you practice self-care. 

We recently looked at some techniques that are good to integrate into your ongoing practice. But these are just one part of your self-care toolkit. If you’re experiencing troublesome thoughts or feelings triggered by a recent interaction with a client, for example, what you might need most is to talk things through with a colleague – in clinical lingo, “to debrief.”

You might think, ‘But I already do that, and it’s not complicated.’ However, like all self-care techniques, debriefing leads to the best outcomes for you, your colleague, and your clients if you understand why, when, and the best way to do it.

You’re right that it’s not complicated though – check out the advice below and you’ll be ready to go.

1. What is debriefing?

Debriefing is a conversation between a clinician and a peer or manager where the goal is for the clinician to share information and process an event. When successful, it enables the clinician to develop strategies to support future performance and well-being. Ideally, the conversation takes place soon after the event in question, but it can also happen later.

Most debriefing in clinical audiology happens informally. That means it’s not scheduled in response to a critical incident, but is instead ad hoc and happens as needed. 

2. How do I know if it’s needed?

Take 30 seconds after each appointment to check in with yourself: ‘How do I feel about the work I did? Am I satisfied with how I engaged with the client? Am I feeling triggered by anything?’ If you’re feeling unsettled, try to identify the cause and consider whether you can resolve this yourself or if you would benefit from speaking to someone, i.e. from debriefing.  

It’s also good to keep an eye on yourself and your colleagues in the longer term. If you or they start behaving differently with clients, show signs of withdrawal or burnout, or seem overwhelmed, a debrief could help.

3. What are the pitfalls?

Even informal debriefing can be done well or poorly, by either the clinician or the listener. If done poorly, the encounter can result in heightened anxiety in the clinician or new trauma in the listener.

A common scenario is where the listener is bombarded with difficult or graphic information without proper warning or without giving consent. They are then at risk of developing troublesome thoughts or emotions themselves and are less able to help the person in front of them. This can be avoided by following the steps below.

4. How do I do it?

Once you’ve decided that a debrief would be helpful, consider if it’s needed now (i.e. an informal conversation before you see your next client) and if you and a colleague will have time for this, or if it should wait and form part of a larger, scheduled conversation.

Whether you decide on an informal or formal debrief, your next step is to go see your peer or manager and seek their consent.

You could start like this: “I heard something really difficult today. Could I talk to you about it?” Be prepared that the listener could say “no” or qualify their consent by saying, for example, “I only have 10 minutes” or “I’m happy to talk about work matters, but not emotional ones.” 

If they do say “yes,” try to avoid sharing everything at once. Think about the story as contained behind a tap – you need to decide how much to release and at what pace in order to benefit from the conversation and not overwhelm your colleague. 

As the conversation progresses, try to assess how you’re feeling. Are you becoming more settled? Are you more ready for your next client? At the end, ask yourself if you need a break before your next client and if there are strategies you need to put in place to help you stay settled for the rest of the day or week. 

Remember – by making debriefing part of your practice, you’ll be helping maintain your personal and professional well-being, leading to better long-term outcomes for yourself and your clients.

Check out Module 9 in the Ida University Course for more detailed information about debriefing and other self-care techniques.