The need for debriefing

pastoralAfter three years of doing regular blogs about missions, often with a particular emphasis on stress, I am amazed to realise that I have not yet specifically blogged about that most vital of tools – debriefing.  I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in passing but that is in no way sufficient considering the significance of this powerful resource to help combat stress and culture shock in the life of the overseas mission worker.

Debriefing is the act of sitting down with a facilitator to reflect on past experiences and how we feel about them.  During the course of a mission trip, whether short or long-term, each mission worker undergoes new experiences (many of which are challenging or even dangerous) and comes into contact with new sensations, many of which may not be at all pleasant.  These challenges may well be repeated differently at the various stages of our experience: leaving home, arriving in a foreign country, changing assignment, moving to another part of the country and returning ‘home’ all require repeated adjustments to change.  While we stoically cope with all these challenges, each one contributes to the general level of stress we feel, and can create an inability to cope with more change and deal with relationship challenges responsibly.

To have the opportunity to reflect on what we found different, how we felt about it, and how that continues to impact our ideas and feelings helps us process our thoughts and emotions so that we are more aware of what’s going on inside us.  It helps us to recognise that the occasional tearful or angry outburst, or an inner deadness can be perfectly normal in some circumstances.  In the process of doing a debrief, which can take a few hours or several days depending on the complexity of the issues involved, we have the opportunity to restore a sense of balance and inner peace.

sweater-splitDebriefing is rather like dealing with a drawer which is so full of stuffed-in jumpers that it won’t close neatly any more.  Often we just shove our emotional responses down inside us, but there comes a time when we can’t deal with any more, and that can lead to emotional breakdown.  To tidy out the drawer, we take out every jumper, decide whether we want to keep it or not, and if we do, we fold it up neatly and put it back.  Then the drawer will shut properly.  The debriefer asks questions of the mission worker, which helps him or her identify and evaluate their feelings and decide what to do with them.

Proper debriefing can be vital to the long-term inner health of the mission worker.  Debriefing has been linked to improved resilience and decreased mission attrition (Kelly O’Donnell, Global Member Care).  Regular and appropriate debriefing can keep mission workers in peak condition, but it is also possible that failure to provide proper debriefing, particularly after a traumatic incident like a serious car accident or a hostage situation, can lead to long-term emotional damage and even loss of faith.

Syzygy recommends that all overseas mission workers make sure they have debriefs on every home assignment.  Ideally, it should be about 6-8 weeks after getting back.  This is the time when the initial joy of being reunited with friends and family is beginning to wear off and the challenge of reverse culture shock is beginning to bite.  It should take place in familiar surroundings if possible, and involve everyone who has been part of the mission experience – including the children, who sadly often get overlooked.

If your sending agency or church does not provide this for you, we are very happy to provide you with a debrief, with their agreement.  We specialise in providing this service for independent mission workers who do not have an agency and perhaps have not yet realised how much they need debriefing.  We conduct our debriefings at a time and place that is convenient to you in order to minimise the impact or travel and strange surroundings on your experience.  Please contact info@syzygy.org.uk for further information.

Working with people we don’t get on with

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Teamwork is something we all think we know about, but most of us work as part of teams which do not operate at peak capacity, or are at worst completely dysfunctional.  I’ve been part of them myself, so I know.  So how do we get to a place where we are happy with our team, get along with our colleagues, manage change effectively and cope well with the unexpected?

One way is to recognise that we have differences.  Not superficial ones like whether we prefer tea or coffee, or follow United or City, but fundamental ones like whether we can see the big picture or spot the tiny mistakes.  Failure to appreciate these significant differences can lead to serious misunderstandings between us that can hamper our ability to function effectively as a team.

These problems can be exacerbated by cross-cultural  issues.  I will say more about this on another occasion but it is always helpful to remember that others in our team may have fundamentally different  understandings of how we relate together, what we’re doing, and even how the common language we use works.

There are also simple personality differences which mean there are people we naturally relate to well and others we don’t hit it off with.  This is not necessarily a failure.  Someone once calculated that in any random group of 12 people there will be at least one whom you don’t like.  Liking is not the issue, but if we’re in the same team together we have to make it work.

In his excellent book Global Member Care: the Pearls and Perils of Good Practice (2011, William Carey Library, Pasadena CA, ISBN 978-0-87808-113-4) Dr Kelly O’Donnell points out that people in your team will fall into one of four groups: kindred spirit, collegial, enigmatic and irritating.  These are people you love to be with, and spend time out of work with, people you get along with ok, people you tend to avoid because you don’t really understand them, and the ones you really wish God would move somewhere else!

The first two groups are not an issue because you can work with them well.  The third you will have a tendency to misunderstand and the fourth you can frequently fall out with.  These last two groups are the ones that require most effort and emotional energy to deal with, but if we persist, can lead to fruitful working relationships even though we may never become friends.  The annoying people are probably sent by God to be the grain of sand which produces the pearl!

It is important to stress that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with finding a person annoying.  That may simply be a character clash, but it will be helpful to ponder whether contact with that person exposes a personality issue in you which needs to be worked on.  I have found in the past that persevering in developing a relationship with an annoying colleague has helped me to appreciate other less obvious qualities and has led to lasting friendship.

There is an American Indian proverb which says ‘Never judge a man till you have walked a mile in his moccasins.’ In order words, rather than complaining because people at work are difficult to get on with, try to understand why they are difficult.  Realising that there may be a reason why a colleague is hard to get along with may be the first step in learning to get along with him.

This ability to transcend personal dislikes for the sake of the team is what distinguishes excellence from mediocrity.  The United players may not actually like each other or their manager, but their teamwork is excellent.