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Engage System 2 Thinking: How to improve debriefs and increase awareness and retention

Drive the company into bankruptcy? No problem. Fuel mass angst among your subordinates with your take-no-prisoners style of leadership? No worries. Hit “reset.” But no matter how complex, how flashy, how mind-boggling a learning may be, one of the most powerful learning experiences comes from debriefs.


A well-facilitated debrief is crucial to bringing about change, whether the goal is increasing strategic alignment or optimizing talent. A well-led debrief has an all-important goal: help participants become aware of their mental models — deeply rooted beliefs, assumptions or behaviors that may limit their performance.


We all have mental models, but often we don’t even think about them. But deeply rooted beliefs are just that: deeply rooted. It takes skill to expose those roots, let alone understand them, untangle them, and adjust them so that they are healthy and helpful rather than a hindrance. When leading a debrief, it’s important to have a clear understanding of how to engage deeper thinking in order to expose and improve mental models.


It’s helpful to understand that the human brain can be seen as functioning with two different systems. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” calls them System 1 (fast) and System 2 (slow). He describes System 1 as our “automatic” brain. It’s the part that allows us to react instinctively to situations and questions. Think about driving: Have you ever become engrossed in thought, only to realize that you are several blocks (and traffic lights) down the road — and you are in awe how you got there? That was your System 1 brain in action, doing what it knows how to do thanks to plenty of repetition.


System 2, on the other hand, is the kind of thinking that requires the “deep” brain and/or long-term memory. A simple example involves math. If you are asked to give the answer to 2+2, you’ll barely pause before giving an answer (that is System 1 at work again). But what if you are asked to give the answer to 17x19? More than likely, that will require pencil and paper — if you don’t have access to the calculator. In order to find that answer, System 2 thinking must be engaged; there’s no “automatic” answer that jumps to mind. The process of pausing and engaging in the “slow” thinking that Kahneman describes allows the brain to access information that is not commonly used in everyday life. He also talks about how System 2 thinking is harder work; it can actually be tiring.


These two systems are important because an effective learning experience includes a balance of questions and experiences that call on both System 1 and System 2 thinking. Often it can be a challenge to engage System 2. Because it is more taxing, the human brain often defaults to System 1 responses. But with skillful help, System 2 can be encouraged to monitor System 1, creating new, analytical insights where old assumptions try to hold fast.


In the debrief setting, it is vital that participants engage System 2 in order to come to controlled, deliberate reflection. One of the best ways to do this is to ask questions that tend to trigger System 2 thinking.


Questions that get a leaner to think about their thinking would fall into to the realm of System 2 questions. For example, here are a few pertaining to performing tasks yourself or delegating them.

  • What was the rationale behind your decision?

  • What are the similarities between your experience and the simulation decision?

  • Are there any differences?

  • Let’s assume your personal experience didn’t exist; how would you make this decision?

  • Has anyone on the team had a similar real-world experience? What was the outcome? If you were to face the consequences of this decision without the ability to decide, how would you react?

  • Imagine your decision led to a complete failure. What were the causes of failure?

  • How would you communicate this decision to your leadership? To the client?

  • Was there disagreement when making this decision? If so, what was it and how did you resolve the conflict?

  • What are your predictions regarding the outcomes of this decisions? Any additional consequences?

  • What kind of feelings did you experience while making this decision? What kind of feelings did you experience once you got the answer?

  • How would you apply this decision to a different project, scenario, or client?

  • Throughout the process, when did you feel the most comfortable/confident? When were you the most frustrated?

The important thing to remember is that debriefs can be the linchpin of a meaningful, lasting learning experience. So, thinking through these questions and creating the space for learners to process them is critical.


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