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Managing psychological safety in debriefings: a dynamic balancing act
  1. Michaela Kolbe1,2,
  2. Walter Eppich3,
  3. Jenny Rudolph4,5,
  4. Michael Meguerdichian6,7,
  5. Helen Catena8,
  6. Amy Cripps8,
  7. Vincent Grant8,9,
  8. Adam Cheng8,9
  1. 1 Simulation Center, University Hospital Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
  2. 2 Department of Managment, Technology, and Economics, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
  3. 3 Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Departments of Pediatrics and Medical Education, Chicago, Illinois, USA
  4. 4 Center for Medical Simulation, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  5. 5 Department of Anesthesia, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  6. 6 Harlem Hospital Center, New York City, New York, USA
  7. 7 H+H Simulation Center, New York City, New York, USA
  8. 8 KidSIM Simulation Program, Alberta Children’s Hospital, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
  9. 9 Departments of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Michaela Kolbe, Simulation Center, University Hospital Zurich, 8091 Zurich, Switzerland; mkolbe{at}


Debriefings should promote reflection and help learners make sense of events. Threats to psychological safety can undermine reflective learning conversations and may inhibit transfer of key lessons from simulated cases to the general patient care context. Therefore, effective debriefings require high degrees of psychological safety—the perception that it is safe to take interpersonal risks and that one will not be embarrassed, rejected or otherwise punished for speaking their mind, not knowing or asking questions. The role of introductions, learning contracts and prebriefing in establishing psychological safety is well described in the literature. How to maintain psychological safety, while also being able to identify and restore psychological safety during debriefings, is less well understood. This review has several aims. First, we provide a detailed definition of psychological safety and justify its importance for debriefings. Second, we recommend specific strategies debriefers can use throughout the debriefing to build and maintain psychological safety. We base these recommendations on a literature review and on our own experiences as simulation educators. Third, we examine how debriefers might actively address perceived breaches to restore psychological safety. Re-establishing psychological safety after temporary threats or breaches can seem particularly daunting. To demystify this process, we invoke the metaphor of a ‘safe container’ for learning; a space where learners can feel secure enough to work at the edge of expertise without threat of humiliation. We conclude with a discussion of limitations and implications, particularly with respect to faculty development.

  • debriefing
  • simulation-based education
  • psychological safety
  • communication
  • faculty development

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  • Contributors AC and MK conceived the idea. MK wrote the first draft of manuscript. WE contributed to the two-column case to demonstrate key concepts in action. JR contributed to the concepts and text regarding ‘breaches’ of psychological safety and wrote first draft of section on naming the dynamic. All authors edited and revised manuscript, and approved of the final manuscript for submission.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests MK, WE, MM, VG, AC, HC and AC are faculty for the Debriefing Academy, which runs debriefing courses for healthcare professionals. MK is faculty at the Simulation Center of the University Hospital Zurich, also providing debriefing faculty development training. JR is faculty at the Center for Medical Simulation, providing debriefing faculty development training. WE receives salary support from the Center for Medical Simulation to teach on simulation educator courses; he also receives per diem honorarium from PAEDSIM e.V. to teach on simulation educator courses in Germany.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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