Online, virtual and remote debriefing. 

Comhlámh’s information and support officer, Ruth Powell, reflects on delivering online, virtual and remote debriefings during a pandemic. 

I didn’t want to do online debriefings at first.   

I didn’t think I could do them and I worried they wouldn’t work; but on the 12 March 2020 Covid–19 changed the way we live and work indefinitely in Ireland, and doing debriefings online, virtually or remotely was simply the way it was going to be. 

Comhlámh believes that all volunteer development workers should receive an operational debriefing while they are still on their international placement, and a personal debriefing on return to Ireland.  Debriefings can be done in groups or facilitated in one-to-one sessions, and we regard them as a key stage to the international volunteering experience. 

From the 12 March 2020, Comhlámh moved our work online overnight, and we were met with the same challenges as other NGOs in the sector.  As the volunteer sending agencies in our network cancelled all the short term summer placements, and brought home many of the volunteer development workers who were already onsite in their international placements, we tried to offer support and assistance where we could.   

As spring moved into summer, some volunteer sending agencies were able to offer their signed up volunteers an alternative experience of virtual volunteering and we will talk more about those experiences in a later blog; but several volunteer sending agencies asked us to help them with their debriefing. 

How could we do it? 

In the past, Comhlámh has been able to offer group and one-to-one debriefings to organisations and individuals and they have mainly been carried out in our cosy office on Parliament Street, or in the offices of the organisations involved.  In order to take this work online, we went back to the basics of the debriefing framework we use, which was developed by clinical psychologist, Debbie Lovell as part of her work with the CHS Alliance. 

The framework we use was specifically developed for non-clinical practitioners to use, has ten steps and is similar to a semi-structured interview.  The debriefer asks questions, and the de-briefee responds with as much or as little detail as they are comfortable with.  One of the questions is about the challenges or difficulties of the placement and the de-briefee is asked to think about three or four issues that come to mind.   

There is a great deal of overlap between what is operational and what is personal on an international volunteering for development placement.  A person may say that they hated their accommodation, which might feel like a relatively straight forward operational complaint.  However, if you listen carefully you might discover that it was not the accommodation that caused distress or living with four colleagues, one of whom liked to listen to loud music late at night and one who never cleaned up their own dishes.  Rather, with the gentle excavation tools of silence and time, you might discover it was in the accommodation that the volunteer wondered if they had made the right decision by leaving Ireland.  It was there they questioned if their unique imposter syndrome was founded in truth.  It was there they worried they wouldn’t be able to live up to the new professional expectations on their shoulders.  Nothing to do with the accommodation at all. 

But how could we do this online?   

How could we ignore the camera in our laptops and recreate the same conditions so that the one being debriefed would feel safe, relaxed and listened to? 

We asked for advice from former Comhlámh staff member and current Comhlámh Board member Marie-Therese Fanning, who was very generous with her comments and experience.  She reiterated the advice we had heard from Debbie Lovell in masterclass sessions, which is to “follow the process, follow the steps”. 

Marie-Therese gave us a great deal of practical suggestions such as spending time before hand with the person being debriefed to find out the best platform for them, and simply accommodate it.  If they prefer SKYPE to Zoom, do it.  If they like Jitsi over Messenger, do it.  If the regular telephone works for them, then do it on the phone!  The de-briefee needed to be assured that the session was private and confidential and there should also be a clear Plan B just in case the technology or internet stopped abruptly mid-session.  Equally important was the self-care of the debriefer, and Marie-Therese reminded us that this was more important now than ever, as the sessions migrated into our homes.   

We set up our first online debriefing in April and it went very well.  All of the people we have worked with said they found the sessions interesting and useful and some have gone onto further counselling sessions at the Clanwilliam Institute, where we have an MoU. 

The volunteer development workers, who have returned back to Ireland in the past six months, face peculiar challenges.  Some are disorientated because they left their placement with only 48 hours notice, and have left their projects without finishing off targets and work plans.  Some have come home to no homes or jobs, because they hadn’t planned to come back to Ireland until the summer of 2021.  Some feel guilty worrying about a pandemic in Ireland, which is far wealthier in health resources than the country they left behind so suddenly.  Some are worried about the future; will they go back to their placement, or is it all over now? 

During the debriefing we ask the person being debriefed to reflect on the positive aspects of the overall experience, and it seems that coming back to Ireland during a pandemic might have some benefits too.  People have enjoyed a slower re-entry into Irish society, where time can be given over to re-connecting with family and friends either virtually or in a physical space.  People have noted that perhaps it’s easier to discuss issues surrounding global inequality in general, when we are faced with the harsh realities of how the virus is particularly vicious to those with less equal status.  People have commented that perhaps it’s easier to have discussions about major life changes when almost everyone is reconsidering their home, work and life options post-lockdown.  All in all, they were grateful that their volunteer sending agency and that Comhlámh could provide them with the opportunity to have their personal debriefings facilitated online, remotely and virtually. 

If you, or someone you know would like to have a personal, one-to-one debriefing session, please email and we will find a date and time that suits you.  We are prioritising those who have come back to Ireland in the past several months first but are also seeing people who have been back for (much) longer. 

Further Reading 

A signatory of the Comhlámh Volunteer Charter would; “agree to participate in any debreifing available after…placement”.

A signatory to the Comhlámh Code of Good Practice for Volunteer Sending Agencies would “ensure that all volunteers are offered appropriate one-to-one and/or group personal debriefing at the end of their placement”. 

Code of Good Practice

CHS Alliance 


Clanwilliam Institute

Debriefing toolkit for humanitarian workers, by clinical psychologist, Debbie Lovell.