The Listener: Better Conversations

Foster a safe environment for productive conversations and support participants through a systems thinking process as they grapple to understand complex global issues.


It is time to break through the stalemates of polarization and engage in productive conversations. How do we create space – emotionally and intellectually – to listen to other points of view and experiences? How do we share our own ideas without fear or judgment? ​​Debate is not a war of words, it’s a set of skills and mindsets that support productive conversations and help us deal effectively with local problems, as well as global issues. Following Doha Debates methodology, we position debating as a search for common understanding, building consensus, organizational learning, and discovering interventions that will have a positive impact on those most affected by the issue. This lesson plan is well suited for working with films about controversial issues.


  • Foster a safe environment for productive conversations.
  • Practice deep listening, inclusion and collaborative brainstorming. 
  • Support participants through a systems thinking process as they grapple to understand complex global issues.
  • Build social emotional skills, critical thinking skills and global competencies.

STEP 1: PREPARE Master Listening

Leaning-in to difficult conversations requires a sense of safety and good communication skills. Prepare to watch and discuss the films by setting the tone for collaboration and practicing the “superpower” of communication skills: listening.

Gather participants in a circle so they can all see each and are seated at the same level. Explain to them that they will be engaging in a different style of debate, one in which the primary goal is to understand others, and the secondary goal is to be understood by others. 

Explain to participants:

  • The group will be exploring a complex global issue, or wicked problem, with the purpose of considering multiple world views, taking a systems thinking approach.
  • The class is a safe place to have open dialogue and to learn from diverse world views.
  • How participants communicate and practice social emotional skills will be the key to their success.

Ask participants to brainstorm 3-5 “agreements” for how the group can behave in order to accomplish this safe learning environment. Listening respectfully, allowing each other to finish speaking, being curious, inviting all participants to speak are possibilities, but facilitators should require participants to create and commit to their agreements.

Ask participants to discuss: 

  • What makes a conversation go really well? 
  • What does it mean to listen? 
  • What does it feel like to be truly heard? 

Watch the short Master Listening video and discuss as a group:

  • How is saying you understand different from saying you want to understand?
  • What kind of questions can you ask to show that you want to understand someone’s perspective?
  • What are the challenges of imagining a world where conflicting stories can coexist? What are the benefits?

Set the Tone for the Majlis and Master Listening are expanded lesson plans for this step.

STEP 2: ENGAGE Watch the films

Prior to viewing the films, introduce the SIFT Worksheet. This is a graphic organizer designed to help students keep track of their reactions while viewing the films. Using the worksheet during the film viewing, ask students to notice and record any physical SENSATIONS, any IMAGES that are particularly evocative, any FEELINGS that they experience, and any THOUGHTS that occur to them. Be sure to supply one worksheet per film for each student. 

In addition, ask your students to write down any thoughts and questions they had while watching the films.

Screen the film(s). After watching each film, allow time for students to discuss their reactions either as a class or in small groups. 

Hint: This reflection is a critical step in learning from the film as it allows an opportunity for participants to make an emotional connection to the issues through the storytelling.

STEP 3: REFLECT Make a personal connection to the topic

Provide a few minutes for participants to reflect individually in a journal using this prompt:

  • I used to think __________, but now I know ___________.

Either as a class or in small groups, discuss the content using the following prompts:

What surprised you about the film? What stood out to you? 

What did you learn from this video? 

How did watching this change what you already thought about the issue?

Hint: This may surface differences of opinion. These questions are designed to establish common ground and to help participants to integrate personal connections to the stories from the films. If necessary, remind participants that you are seeking to understand even more than to be understood. Refer to agreements from STEP 1 if necessary.

STEP 4: ACT Make a change, be the change

Explain to participants that they will now create a systems map of the issue in order to more deeply understand their own worldview (or perspective on the issue), as well as consider the perspectives of the various stakeholders in the issue. 

Use this Systems Thinking slidedeck to present the concept of systems mapping in simple terms by explaining the elements as well as the interdependencies. Here is a systems map of the global hunger issue:

Either as a class or in small groups, visualize the systemic nature of the issue presented in the films by brainstorming on a whiteboard or shared screen.  

First write the elements, and circle them. (You may wish to use different colors or sizes for the circles to indicate how “important” or “influential” the element is in the overall system.) 

  • The elements of the system are the persons, places and things that make up the system. In a system that is engaging with a social problem, the elements might include different types of organizations, public and private institutions, products, currencies, technologies, policies and, of course, people. Hint: Be sure to include those who are most affected by the issue? Who are the characters in the film and what is their role?

Second, draw the interdependencies, using lines. (You may wish to use different colors or thicknesses of the lines to indicate how “important” or “influential” the interdependency is in the overall system.) 

  • The interdependencies are the relationships that connect the elements. In systems thinking, interdependencies help tell the story of what is happening inside the system and how the system can adapt to changes. In social systems, interdependencies might include funding patterns, supply and distribution chains, service relationships, education and advocacy, among others.

Hint: Listening is a critical skill for successful systems mapping. As you create the maps, cultivate curiosity and model asking good questions each time an element or interdependency is added. Review the learnings from STEP 1 if necessary.

Finally, debrief the systems mapping experience with participants. Step back from the maps and observe them on the whole. Explain that systems thinking is used to understand the complexities of an issue and to deliberately seek diverse perspectives, often marginalized perspectives, before ever beginning to talk about solutions. Bring the activity to a close with a whole group discussion:

What new perspectives were revealed to you after participating in this systems mapping activity?

What ideas do you have for an action or intervention that might have a positive impact on the issue? 

As you look at the systems map, how might your ideas have a negative impact on the system or a stakeholder in the system?

What is one simple action your group could take that would contribute to the solution of the complex issue explored.

Map your Worldview is an expanded lesson plan for this step.

Hint: The map itself is not the goal of this activity, but rather, the dialogue and curiosity that the activity evokes! The map itself will be messy- a visual indication of the complexity of the issue. Complex issues do not have a single solution and any changes to the system will affect other elements of the system. Enjoy being inquisitive along with the participants. Your authentic participation will model this essential life skill.


The timeline for this lesson may range from 2-3 class periods, depending on the time allotted for viewing film(s), and the depth of discussion desired. Conversations can last one class period, or multiple. At minimum, STEP 1 and 2 may be done in one 45-60 minute class period. STEP 3 and 4 may require an additional class period. Be sure to give students ample time to digest the film(s) and learn about the topic. Consider assigning research and reflection journaling as homework.


Review the resource links at the end of this lesson plan and familiarize yourself with the concepts. Select 1-3 films to screen in class related to the issue you want to explore with participants. Gather background information on the issue to be explored and be ready to expand the conversation. Be sure to review the Better Conversations video series, particularly Master Listening.

Bonus Option

Doha Debates works with Dr. Govinda Clayton, a senior researcher in peace processes at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, to develop the Better Conversations video series. The series of eight short videos introduces the following skills:  

  • How to Get Along with Other People  
  • Set Clear Goals  
  • Manage Your Emotions  
  • Understand Their Story  
  • Master Listening 
  • Body Language Matters 
  • Change Your Approach 
  • Ending on a High Note 

You may wish to assign participants to explore the Better Conversations videos as a self-study project, using the simple prompts accompanying the videos.

Suggested Films: