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Q&A / July 25 2019

Q&A With Doha Debates Connector Govinda Clayton

by Daniel King
Govinda Clayton leading a workshop called “Negotiating Common Ground: How to have difficult conversations” at TEDSummit: A Community Beyond Borders. July 21-25, 2019, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

As a global expert in conflict resolution, negotiation and peacekeeping, Govinda Clayton knows the challenges and aspirations of building bridges between sharply differing positions. He’s a senior researcher in peace processes at ETH Zurich, and he has one of the most exciting, unique roles in Doha Debates’ live events: the connector, searching for common ground across the stage and the world. Govinda excels at it, so we asked him to share a few tips and insights for resolving conflicts.


Q: What’s the best a debate can be today? What makes a constructive debate?

GOVINDA: There’s a lot of variation in what people think a “debate” can be, but when most people think of debating they picture Oxford-style competitions between two people or groups presenting positions to a jury that then votes on the outcome. But what’s most interesting about Doha Debates, and particularly the Majlis, is it’s creating an entirely new style of debate. It’s essentially “Doha-style debating,” which rather than simply competing, involves a common search for better understanding, points of consensus, and solutions.

This is so important, given the challenges we seem to have as a society in engaging in difficult conversations. The world appears to be becoming far too closed off. People are often unable or unwilling to engage in hard conversations. Oxford-style debate is not necessarily useful in this context because it rarely moves us toward a fuller understanding of each other. Instead, what I think Doba Debates is trying to do is help viewers map out where there is agreement and differences on key issues we all face, and explore why differences occur.


Q: What’s the most common, avoidable mistake in debates?

GOVINDA: There’s a tendency to overfocus on setting out our own positions, and that’s when we get blinkered to other people’s interests and explanations. It’s the classic echo chamber challenge, and my role as connector is to look beyond what people are necessarily saying — beyond their positions — and identify common interests that underpin the points they’re making.


Q: What’s the distinction between “positions” and “interests”?

GOVINDA: Most simply, positions are statements that include an outcome you want, and interests are the underlying motivations and values, essentially why you want something.


Q: So positions might be incompatible, but interests don’t have to be?

GOVINDA: That’s right, and my experience in negotiations and dialogue processes — training diplomats, students, people from the corporate world and local communities to move past positions and focus on common interests — these are the skills I’m excited to apply in this role.


“What’s most interesting about Doha Debates and the Majlis is it’s creating an entirely new style of debate: a common search for better understanding, points of consensus, and solutions.”

—Govinda Clayton


Q: “Conflict” has become such a negative word to many people, but is some conflict necessary for solving challenges?

GOVINDA: Conflict is a really good thing! Conflict is what produces growth individually and collectively. It’s what produces creativity. Conflict is even enjoyable at times — think of sports, which is an incompatibility of goals: It produces conflict. Think of science, art. We grow and thrive as a society through conflict. The problem is destructive or violent conflict, and conflict that harms relationships. We don’t want to get rid of all conflict. We want some, like a conflict of ideas. We want a society with conflict everywhere! But in a really positive, constructive sense.


Q: As connector, do you think it’s an advantage to know a lot about a debate topic or a little? Go in as a subject expert or with fresh ears as an outside observer?

GOVINDA: I think both are important. There’s a lot of research on the role of bias in mediation: One argument is that it’s better to be totally detached from a topic because it gives me a fresh perspective, but the other literature says the best mediators are intimately connected with the topic because they understand the issues, they get the nuances. In my role with Doha Debates there’s an advantage to not being totally specialized in a topic because I don’t go into all the nuances. It’s more important to have a connector with skills and experience developing common ground than a subject-specific expert who’d become just another speaker.


Q: How can we give opposing arguments a fair chance and a close listen instead of talking past each other in debates?

GOVINDA: That’s exactly what Doha Debates is trying to do and doing well. To actually have a meaningful, deep conversation takes time and patience, so it’s very challenging. But that’s why it’s so important! What excites me about Doha-style debating is that if they can do it — and consistently pull it off — this can be a strong model for other programs, universities and general conversations. You start with a positional discussion and end with common ground, understanding each other a little better. It’s a really fantastic aspiration, especially when you’re talking about very complex topics like gender equality, globalization, capitalism.


Q: You’ve worked with peacebuilders around the world. Do you approach each situation with the same toolkit or different skills at smaller and larger scales?

GOVINDA: Of course every context is unique, and understanding the nuances and distinct elements helps resolve conflict. But there are some consistencies across all forms of conflict, and a common toolkit can help manage or resolve them. Whether it’s family members or within your workplace or even violent conflict internationally, some of the same skills are useful — for example, active listening and the difference between positions and interests. You don’t need to go to an international level to see it. For most people, if anything, just look at your family!

Look at your relationship with the guy in your office who annoys you a little because he speaks too much in the meetings. Of course each situation is radically different but it’s the same dynamics playing out. It’s challenging to resolve conflict, but with practice and training we can all improve the quality of our interactions.


Q: Is conflict resolution a science?

GOVINDA: I believe there is certainly a science to conflict resolution. We know a lot about the techniques that more effectively resolve conflict. Sadly there is really no discussion of this in the wider discourse. This needs to change. Kids should be taught how to resolve conflict in school, just as they’re taught how to play soccer or do math. Documentaries should be made to explain conflict and how it’s resolved, much like the ones that explain nature, physics, the workings of the universe. Even if we move the needle a couple of degrees for a handful of people, that’s quite something.

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