When was the last time you tried to have a productive conversation with someone, despite diametrically opposing viewpoints? Were you successful? Or did your conversation get … stuck?
Jason Jay, a longtime environmentalist and director of MIT Sloan's Sustainability Initiative, often found himself frustrated by stonewalled discussions and the poor results of impassioned arguments with those he most hoped to persuade. Jay teamed up with Gabriel Grant, a social entrepreneur and doctoral candidate at Yale University, and the two began six years of research stemming from a question they both shared: How do we turn these conversations around?
Jay and Grant conducted more than 2,000 workshops at 15 universities, drawing lessons from the experiences of people who got stuck in conversations and tried again using new frameworks. In following up with workshop participants, they gained significant anecdotal evidence that profound shifts were possible if conversations were approached in the right way. Jay and Grant crafted and honed a methodology to make progress in difficult conversations, including how to address our own biases and approach people with a more positive mindset. The tool sets they developed, tested, and have since deployed in workshops, conferences, universities, and organizations around the country are now shared in their new book, Breaking through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World.
Opening the lines of communication
Values-laden conversations—whether political, social, or other—can quickly become heated and feel hopeless. No matter your side, it’s easy to make polarizing moves that you don’t even realize you’re making. In fact, Breaking Through the Gridlock will make you laugh in recognition of some of your own divisive blunders. Jay and Grant offer easy steps for opening the lines of communication when conversations get stuck, and a way forward for groups that feel trapped in seemingly zero-sum conflicts. These tools are even more relevant now than when the authors began this project six years ago.
“In the beginning, we were writing for progressive advocates who wanted to create positive movements for change,” says Jay. “In fact, our working title was Beyond the Choir. Then, in the middle of last year, as the U.S. election was heating up, the landscape was becoming more and more polarized. Brexit happened. And all of a sudden, people were knocking on our door. We realized these tools, this book, are not just for advocates. We’re all embroiled.”