• Jason Jay, director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, advocates entering into discussions with empathy and the goal of understanding what the other side values:

    Jason Jay, director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, advocates entering into discussions with empathy and the goal of understanding what the other side values: "What are they standing for when they appear to be standing against you? If we take that seriously, what might be possible in terms of innovation?"

    Photo and book cover courtesy of Jason Jay.

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Breaking through gridlock: Productive conversations in a polarized world

A Mens et Manus America conversation with Jason Jay reveals research on how to have meaningful conversations with people holding opposing viewpoints.


Press Contact

Emily Hiestand
Email: hiestand@mit.edu
Phone: 617-324-2043
Office of the Dean, School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

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 affect 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 talk on May 9 was the fourth event held by Mens et Manus America, an ongoing initiative co-sponsored by Sloan and the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences to explore 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 affecting 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 University, 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.

Recognize your biases, 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.

What can we as engaged citizens do?

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. The initiative asks: 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.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Emily Hiestand (director) and Kathryn O'Neill (senior writer)

Topics: Community, Collaboration, Negotiation, Politics, Policy, Communications, SHASS, Sloan School of Management, Special events and guest speakers, Democracy

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