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Podcast / May 20 2020

How "Course Correction" Changed My Life

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In the final episode of the season, Nelufar speaks with conflict resolution expert and friend Dr. Govinda Clayton about how to listen, how to be heard and how we can all change for the better.

Full transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.


This is Course Correction from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. Each week, we’ve looked at one big global issue and met the people who are actively working to fix it. And this season we have covered a lot: Globalization, plastic waste, menstruation stigma, climate change, the wage gap. I could go on.

And of course, we can’t solve these issues in a single podcast. Nor can any single individual that we’ve met in the series. But together, we can keep finding new ways to move forward. Mainly by asking ourselves: How can we remain open to new solutions? What might we learn from other perspectives? How can we create change in ourselves and do it together as communities, countries and, ultimately, as a civilization?

Getting a little personal for a second. Making this podcast over the year or so — it’s changed me and so in this, our final episode, I didn’t want to present some grand plan to solve all the world’s problems, but to take a minute and see for myself what the sum total of all of these little journeys I’ve been on is.

I thought I’d sit down with my friend Dr. Govinda Clayton, who I met on the set of the live Doha Debates, and hash it out. He researches how to communicate and resolve conflict in some pretty extreme situations — like inside refugee camps and in the midst of civil war.

What I work on normally is the hardest cases. So it’s the cases in which you’re trying to produce change in individuals and groups in the most difficult of circumstances. But of course all of the different technologies and understandings and theories that I use every day equally just apply in everyday life.

NELUFAR: That’s why I thought he’d be a good person to help me look back on some of the tricky topics we’ve covered in this series, to help me make sense of what I’ve learned.

GOVINDA: Yeah, absolutely. I think hopefully from the things that I’ve listened to so far, some of the processes that you’ve been going through, I can help you understand a little bit.

NELUFAR: All right, so you said you’ve listened to a lot of the show.

GOVINDA: Sure, sure.

NELUFAR: What do you think about this idea of really putting yourself in the center of these, like, gigantic issues? I’m not going to be able to clean the world’s oceans, OK? But I can maybe use less plastic that does the polluting, right? So how important is it to put yourself in the heart of some of these gigantic global issues?

GOVINDA: So I think, two things. I mean, firstly, all change begins at home, as it were. And so I think it’s certainly really important to — for each of us as individuals, to take on these challenges and to think individually about how we can produce change around these, these big important issues.

But often a great way of learning is hearing other people as an example, and the changes and the transformations that have occurred in them. So I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed about the podcast so far.

NELUFAR: What’s your favorite episode? What’s your favorite bit? Tell me.

GOVINDA: Oh, I mean, unquestionably the first episode with your mum. I mean, I just think that it was just absolutely fantastic.


You get upset. You get sad. Why?

NELUFAR: Because we have been through horrific trauma. Mum. [SPEAKS SOFTLY IN FARSI]


GOVINDA: I mean, it was emotional for me, so I can only imagine how emotional it was for you.


GOVINDA: But for me, it really showed how a good conversation can really unlock a new understanding of a certain issue. And so I’m really actually interested to hear from you about what, what were the kind of fundamental learnings that you had, and how did that change you and your understanding of who you are?

NELUFAR: Yeah. I have to say, in my entire life, my mum and I had never had that conversation. And the reason we didn’t was because there’s — there’s so much pain in, in, in, in what happened when I was a child in Afghanistan and a refugee in Pakistan and the journey to get into the UK, to London, where I live now. There’s so much pain and confusion involved in it. And then there’s trying to understand it as a 31-year-old adult versus experiencing it as a 5-year-old kid.


NELUFAR: I have interviewed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in my life. This is the hardest interview I have ever done.

MUM: Because you get emotional too.


MUM: When I get to emotion, you get emotion. That’s not easy for you, too —

NELUFAR: Well because, because —

MUM: — and you maybe remember some of the things.

NELUFAR: Yes, I remember. I remember sounds. I remember sounds more than I remember anything else. I remembered the sound of the rockets.

MUM: Yeah.

NELUFAR: I remember the feeling of shaking Earth.

MUM: Yeah.

NELUFAR: I remember you always holding me very tight over my mouth.

MUM: And that you were burqa.

NELUFAR: Under your burqa.

MUM: I sometimes had to put my hand in your mouth because of the bombs.

NELUFAR: Yeah, I remember that. I remember that. I remember.

NELUFAR: It’s, it’s going to be for me, like a life’s work to try and unpick that kind of trauma. But talking to my mum about it, you know, it was hard. That interview, Gov, lasted four hours because we had to keep stopping and having a little cry, ’cause it just, it felt like she was putting in colors and shades and smells and tastes to a situation that I had almost sanitized in order to be able to live with it.

I can’t, I can’t explain to you the journey that I went on in those four hours as, in a way to learn to accept that I — my perspective and what I think happened isn’t always what happened. And we are all just little bundles of confusion and trauma and mess, and we just have to be so open and accepting of one another. And the hardest thing for me to do, was to kind of put my mum through that.

GOVINDA: What I’m really interested in is how you showed up differently for your mum in that discussion. So what was it about that day that you showed up differently, that your mum was willing to kind of share?

NELUFAR: I wasn’t going to do my usual thing of telling my mum, “Oh, no, no, no. I know this, and you don’t know that.” I came to it very much wanting to listen. Literally sat elbow to elbow with her, which we don’t really do so much. We’re not super huggy, touchy-feely type of relationship. The relationship between me and my mother is very respectful, but in that moment it was more just, just feeling each other’s pain, in a way. So I didn’t even think about it, but you’re absolutely right. When I hear myself in that tape, it’s a version of me that I very rarely open up to the world, in a way.

GOVINDA: This is so important in terms of learning from other people, that so often we enter into a conversation and we’re not really listening to what the other person’s saying. We’re just waiting for the opportunity to speak. And conversations and relationships can just be transformed when we transform our listening. So when we enter into a conversation with the intention to genuinely learn something. Often magic happens. Does that make sense?

NELUFAR: It makes a little too much sense.

GOVINDA: How has it, how has it changed? So having, just having had that conversation, how has it changed your relationship with your mom?

NELUFAR: Do you know I call her every week now. Like I never used to. And also the conversations we have are different now. There’s a level of understanding that underpins my relationship with her. It’s almost like we’ve leveled up as a mother and daughter.

Look, I want to move the conversation on a little bit. And I want to tell you a little bit about my favorite challenge. Of all the challenges that I’ve done so far, the one that’s really resonated with me was the water challenge, in which I try to live on less than 50 liters of water per day. And that includes everything: washing, flushing the toilet, cleaning, washing my clothes. Everything.


NELUFAR: OK. It’s somewhere like 8 o’clock in the morning. I’ve just gotten up to start the first day of the challenge. And I’ve already failed, you’ll be surprised to know. I just totally subconsciously flushed the toilet this morning. And then as I was getting up to brush my teeth, I let the water run for like a good 30 seconds. So I don’t know how much liters of water I’ve already completely wasted, but that is not a great start.

NELUFAR: I guess the reason that I found the water challenge so crucial, because after a week, this little idea, this little seed that planted in my brain — “Hey, let me think about how much water I use. This is so random.” — now dominates my life. I did that challenge months ago, months and months ago. To this day, when I see people handing out free tap water in restaurants and then no one drinks it. Like I just cringe inside and — it literally changed my life, and how I behave now. And to me, it was just a crucial moment in trying to understand my impact in a global context.

GOVINDA: That’s amazing, considering how terribly you did in the challenge.


NELUFAR: All right, call me out, why don’t you?

GOVINDA: So, so here’s the question then. To what extent does that influence your day-to-day life now?

NELUFAR: Yes, I failed miserably in the water challenge. Thank you for reminding me. But what it did do is, that seed that it planted now means that I’ve tried, at least, to change my behavior in ways that I think are better. So this is going to sound so silly, but — almonds, Gov. Almonds. I miss almonds, but they are so water-intensive that I can’t justify like buying almond milk. And you know what that’s like for a vegan. It’s basically like our bread and butter.

GOVINDA: I wish I didn’t have this bit of information. I wasn’t aware almonds were bad.

NELUFAR: Almonds are terrible for water! You have to stop eating almonds. So that’s been something. But the point is, is that I’ve tried to make adjustments and changes every step of the way, because I think I view it now as my responsibility.

GOVINDA: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s, that’s so awesome. And the trouble is, is the world’s like a really complicated place. And our brains can only process a certain amount of information at any one time. And so you’ve shifted your behavior to the fact that you now, when you think about things like almonds, you think about it very differently and much more consciously. And so I think that’s a really good example of taking on these types of challenges is, is shifting your patterns, thinking about things differently.

NELUFAR: And how do you think that we can do that without having to make podcasts, Gov?

GOVINDA: How can we interrupt our patterns without — ?

NELUFAR: Yeah, like, like, you know, not only that, I mean. In one of the episodes that was really, really difficult for me to make was when I went to speak to my best mate Cathy, who thinks very, very differently to me. She’s pro- Brexit. She thinks immigration should be curbed. She misses the good old days of, of what it was like to grow up in Britain.

I’m going to play some tape.


Well, at least you aren’t popping out seven kids and living on benefits, eh?

NELUFAR: Do you believe that?!

CATHY: Yeah.

NELUFAR: I don’t know how to convince you that we’re not all bad.

CATHY: I know you’re not all bad. I’m not saying you’re all bad. I just have an issue with people not fitting in. I just miss Britishness and I feel like it’s being lost.

NELUFAR: I called her a racist.


NELUFAR: What did I say?

CATHY: “This is Cathy and she’s a massive racist.” You don’t remember that? Do you not remember that?

NELUFAR: Did I really say that?

CATHY: Yes! And I was like, thinking, what the hell?

NELUFAR: And it’s only now that I’m beginning to realize that in that situation, I’m wrong, because she was trying to have a conversation with me and engage with me, and I just shut her down. So I’m wondering how would we use some of the skills that you teach people? How can I learn to snap out of that habit of like thinking I’m right. My perspective: right. Everyone else’s: wrong.

GOVINDA: First of all, I wouldn’t, you know, I wouldn’t put it in the language of right and wrong. I mean, it’s just not really workable if you want to have friends and get along with people.


GOVINDA: Perhaps surprisingly, information often doesn’t really make that much difference to people. So providing positions and additional facts actually can often be not that effective at changing people’s views.

NELUFAR: Really?

GOVINDA: Yeah, it just makes them double down on their positions. It actually makes them stick to those positions even harder.

NELUFAR: Yeah! And it’s actually blowing my mind. So then how do you change how — if you think that what you’re doing is going to be a net benefit to the world, how can you try and persuade people to, to follow those, those guidelines and those, those changes that you’ve embraced?

GOVINDA: Well, I mean, first of all, is like listening. Which kind of sounds counterintuitive, like you change people’s minds by listening. But people are very rarely open to engaging with new understandings if they don’t feel heard in the first place. So if you tell somebody they’re wrong about something and they should think about it differently, normally, that will kind of rub up against their identity in some way and cause them to lock down their emotions.

Whereas actually, if you’re open to sharing and hearing about why they have their understanding, that might give you a ticket into understanding what’s leading them to have this view. And then once you’ve understood where they are and what they’re thinking, you can then start to think about ways in which you can communicate information to give people an out, as it were.

So rather than telling people that their minds are wrong, you can say you understand their position, but give them new information that might cause them to change their understanding in a particular way.

NELUFAR: I love that. That’s really, really helpful actually. As a mate, like you’ve helped me to understand how to really position myself differently in the world because I love to think of myself as a woke, super tolerant, you know, totally-get-it kind of person. But in reality, I was intolerant in so many ways, and I judged people almost all the time based on what I thought their biggest problem or biggest mistake is, right? Whereas having spent time with you and hearing you talk about these things, or a few of that has been broken down, but I’ve had an effect on you, haven’t I?

GOVINDA: Oh, in too many ways. Indeed, indeed. So I guess what you’re referring to is me recently becoming a vegan, which I mean, I think is an interesting example about how you can and you can’t produce change. And so I’ve been a vegetarian all of my life, and I’ve known for the last probably two or three years that, ethically, I’m very much in line with a kind of vegan diet and have had troubles with consuming animal products in different ways, but I’ve never really had the incentive to take that additional step. And actually once when we were sitting down and having dinner, and you set out for me, you know, your own personal journey, you’ve been in that, in that area, and didn’t try and pressure or force or, or guilt trip me into a certain action.

It was actually very effective in shifting my viewpoint in that area. However, on other occasions when I’ve been hanging out with you, and I’ve seen you applying the same technique —


NELUFAR: Please don’t say this out loud, please.

GOVINDA: — to various other people. You’d be far further along the other end of the spectrum. So you’ve been, you have been trying to force your views onto other people and the effect that that has had has been far less effective.

So I think in a way, it’s a really nice example of how effective we can all be and you can be as a communicator when you take the time to sit down and explain to people in an, in an, in a detailed and understanding way, to show another side of the story. Whereas when you challenge people, when you try and push them to, to take your way of thinking, then that’s very unlikely to produce positive change.

NELUFAR: Now, whereas, I’ve been a vegan five, six years now, whereas before, I wouldn’t have seen that. I’d have been like, “I’m right, they’re wrong.” Now I completely agree with you. Just because I think I’m right doesn’t mean that the other person doesn’t deserve respect and doesn’t deserve my time and the energy that it takes to try and convince them.

If I’m trying to persuade someone of changing their behavior or changing the way they act for what I think is good intentions, then I’ve really got to put myself in their shoes. And I, and I completely see that.

GOVINDA: And just remember, I mean, change happens slowly.


GOVINDA: It’s very rare that people change their mind because of one piece of information. And so to expect to produce significant changes I want to believe in a single conversation is relatively unrealistic, and so it’s more about what can you provide? Who can you be? How can you show up with certain listening that you give people the opportunity to explore these ideas?

NELUFAR: I love that, that  you have to listen in order to be heard.

GOVINDA: Absolutely.

NELUFAR: That’s really fundamental. OK. The globalization episode. OK, what did you think? I really want to know what you thought about it.

GOVINDA: I thought it was great. And I also got the feeling that you had quite a kind of strong connection with some of the people in the globalization episode, and you’ve got quite a lot from the discussion and the listening that you had for them.

NELUFAR: So one of the most important moments for me was speaking to Nana, the farmer in Ghana, who just, I’ve never felt myself change perspective over a conversation so viscerally. Actually, let’s listen to that, ’cause that was brilliant.


NELUFAR: So Nana, you actually want globalization to be a success in Ghana. You support it?

I do. 100%.

NELUFAR: Wow. I thought maybe just doing things locally was the solution. But I don’t think it is.

NANA: So it’s a balance, yeah? We cannot import everything. No. And we cannot export everything. So inasmuch as we are promoting globalization, you should also create a balance.

NELUFAR: It was so bizarre. I was adamant to go into that interview and tell her why globalization is destroying her country and destroying her agriculture and destroying her life. And she was very politely and calmly going to tell me why I was wrong.

And I’ve — that transformation in one conversation and feeling that energy was astonishing for me.

GOVINDA: How was it that she showed up for you to create the space for you to have a kind of a new discovery in your thinking in this area?

NELUFAR: She listened. She was just listening, very politely, and then she was going to tell me what it was like in reality, and it was up to me whether I take it or not, and she gave me the space to change my mind. She didn’t force me to do it.

GOVINDA: And these are complicated issues, right? I mean, none of the topics that you’ve covered over the course of the podcast have simple solutions. There’s different sides of the argument and even the different episodes interact with each other in that way. I mean, I think the, the pressures that we’ve seen as a result of, of scarcity of resources such as water, are one of the things that we often use as an argument against immigration. And so while we might adopt a pro-immigration stance in some context, the resource pressures might be an argument against that.

And so I think there’s no black and white, there’s no right and wrong. But just by starting to get present to these different challenges that I think that’s already an important first step in changing the way we act individually and as a society.

NELUFAR: One of the things that has really happened to me in the course of making these podcasts is appreciating how tiny I am in the grand scheme of things. These are huge, intractable, ingrained, gigantic problems. Globalization, capitalism. artificial intelligence or women’s sexual health and periods. These are huge issues. How optimistic are you? How, how hopeful are you that we as individuals can unlock a lot of these solutions and these changes that need to occur?

GOVINDA: I’m always an optimist. I’ve dedicated most of my life trying to resolve violent conflict. That’s what I spend most of my professional life doing. However, for everybody, there’s a way in which you can get involved on a national or global level, and that’s absolutely becoming politically active over whatever issue that is. So pick whatever issue, whichever one of these issues you covered in the podcast, or what other people care about, and get politically active and engaged in that area. And that’s the way in which we’re more likely to change.

NELUFAR: Absolutely. I mean, the one thing that Course Correction has taught me is how difficult change is — but it’s worth it.

GOVINDA: Yeah, absolutely.

NELUFAR: Gov, thank you so much for coming in here and talking to me.

GOVINDA: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

NELUFAR: And thanks to you for listening to this season! I’ve realized that no one has all the right answers. We just have to make sure we’re always listening to one another in order to be heard. The world is a much more interesting place than any one perspective. And the answers to these big questions are often more surprising than we think.

And that’s it. That’s all from Course Correction season one. We will be back. I hope if nothing else, that you’ve enjoyed listening, and hope for nothing more than having inspired you to make a little course correction — see what I did there — that you can keep with you. My gratitude and thanks to all my guests across the many episodes. To the team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta — for setting me off on this journey, and the whole team at Transmitter Media for coming along with me. And to you, dear listener: We’re not done. I’ll see you very soon for season two.