MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Getting unstuck: Easy steps for achieving conversational breakthroughs

Breaking Through the Gridlock

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.”

Jay and Grant saw a wider need for their book and decided to position it in a broader frame. Using enlightening exercises and rich examples, Breaking Through Gridlock helps readers become aware of the role we all unwittingly play in getting conversations stuck. They started engaging with Van Jones’s organization, The Dream Corps, an organization that brings people together to solve America's toughest problems. And their methodology has been readily adopted by numerous institutions, including Cornell University, where Professor Glen Dowell is baking the techniques into the school’s sustainable business programs.

According to the authors, a key to turning difficult conversation around is entering into them with empathy—listening with the goal of understanding what the other side values. “What are they standing for when they appear to be standing against you?" says Jay. He adds that imagining an ideal outcome, both for the discussion and for the relationship, can help people implement this technique. "Visualize that end state where the relationship is where you want it to be and you've achieved what you want to achieve," he said. "What way of being arises for you in actually getting to see things work out OK?" Once you've found that state, try to approach the conversation from there, he advised.

Jay and Grant believe that if they can get these capabilities into as many hands as possible, they can help transform conversations and bring people together across a line. But while they hope for a wide adoption, they also realize this book is hard work.

“It’s not beach reading, says Jay. “Well, maybe it’s a touch beach reading, but then you hit an exercise and have to go do it, you have to talk it through with someone, it’s real work.”

The pragmatic exercises the authors provide do require some courage and discomfort, but that may well prove to be the work that we need to do in order to effect positive change and get our conversations unstuck.

Jason Jay is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan. He teaches courses on leadership, strategy, and innovation for sustainable business, including the Executive Education program, Strategies for Sustainable Business.


Search innovation@work Blog

Subscribe to Blog by Email

Interested in writing a guest post?

Cutting-edge research and business insights presented by MIT Sloan faculty.

Media Gallery

Visit the Media Gallery to view videos and read articles and blog posts written by MIT Sloan Executive Education faculty and staff.