Breaking through gridlock: productive conversations in a polarized world
A Mens et Manus America event with Jason Jay

“Understand what the other person is for — not what they’re against."

— Jason Jay, Senior Lecturer, and Director, MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative 

The Mens et Manus America initiative at MIT wrapped up its inaugural year with a presentation by Senior Lecturer Jason Jay of the MIT Sloan School of Management, who shared his research on how to have productive conversations with those with diametrically opposing viewpoints — whether in politics or in personal life.

"We have to have conversations if we are going to effect change," said Jay, who outlined findings from his new book Breaking through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017), co-authored with Gabriel Grant. "We change larger conversations by changing one conversation at a time."

Jay's lunchtime talk in E62-276 on May 9, 2017, was the fourth event held by Mens et Manus America, an initiative co-sponsored by Sloan and the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences that explores the social, political, and economic challenges currently facing the United States.

"The intentions for today are to build your courage to have conversations about issues that matter you, to support conversations that lead both to better relationships and to better outcomes that lead to innovation for our times," Jay said.

Productive conversations are crucial for effecting change 

A longtime environmentalist and director of Sloan's Sustainability Initiative, Jay said his book is the culmination of six years of research stemming from the challenges he has faced as advocate for sustainability. Frustrated by the experience of finding his impassioned arguments stonewalled in discussions with those he most hoped to persuade, Jay said he began to ask, "How do we turn these conversations around?"

Jay teamed up with Grant, a social entrepreneur and doctoral candidate at Yale, and the two conducted more than 2,000 conversation workshops at 15 universities, drawing lessons from what people said. Jay said that in following up with workshop participants, he and Grant gained a lot of anecdotal evidence that "pretty profound shifts were possible if we approached conversations in the right way."

They found, Jay said, that people very often approach difficult discussions with a negative attitude, which bleeds through even if they keep their words relatively neutral. "It's coming through in my body language, tone, choice of timing. This shapes our interactions with others," he said.

"What way of being arises for you in actually getting to see things work out okay? Once you've found that state, try to approach the conversation from there."

Recognize your bias, understand other values, envision achievement

To illustrate his point, Jay polled the audience electronically during the event and displayed responses on a screen. The polling revealed that many think those on the other side of key feuds in their lives are stupid, ill-informed, or stubborn. "There's a common way of being that we summarize as 'holier than thou,'" he said.

Jay suggested that the way to make progress in such conversations is by addressing our own biases in advance and approaching people with a more positive mindset.

He advocated entering into discussions with empathy and listening with the goal of understanding what the other side values. "What are they standing for when they appear to be standing against you?" he said. "If we took that seriously, what might be possible in terms of innovation?"

For example, Jay said, an environmentalist who was empathetic to the financial fears of someone fighting a sustainability upgrade might look for an innovative solution that is both clean and inexpensive.

He said 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 noted that while he and Grant began their work in the context of sustainability, they have discovered that their technique applies to many kinds of discourse — from the realm of the personal (such as helping a relative fight obesity) to "hot-button political issues."

"We were surprised at the range of ways in which people get stuck and where a different approach could be powerful," he said.


About Mens et Manus America 

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it is clear that there are major long-term social, political, and economic issues in America that require close attention. In response, members of the MIT community have launched Mens et Manus America, a nonpartisan initiative that is convening a series of research-informed lectures and discussions to explore these issues. We are asking: What can MIT do to help address current challenges in the United States., and bolster the health of our democracy? How can we use research and rigor to inform our decisions about engagement, both as citizens and as leaders of organizations? The initiative is sponsored by the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the MIT Sloan School of Management. Join us as we frame the issues and generate ideas for making a positive impact.

Suggested links

Mens et Manus America Initiative

21st Century Citizenship | MIT SHASS Resources for Understanding and Engagement

Jason Jay
Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan, and Director, Sustainability Initiative

Sloan Sustainability Initiative

Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World

Article at Sloan News: A toolset for getting stuck conversations back on track

Mens et Manus Leadership 

Agustín Rayo
Professor of Philosophy, Associate Dean, MIT SHASS
Co-director, Mens et Manus America

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan
Siteman Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, Deputy Dean, MIT Sloan
Co-director, Mens et Manus America

Catherine Gamon
Director, MIT Sloan Student Life Office

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Mens et Manus America launches with Walley's Exit Zero film documentary

At Mens et Manus America, Arlie Hochschild discusses finding common ground

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Kathryn O'Neill (senior writer) and Emily Hiestand (director, series editor)