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A toolset for getting stuck conversations back on track

MIT Sloan’s Jason Jay explains how to rethink and reboot the conversations holding you back.

By Kara Baskin  |  April 10, 2017

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“Understand what the other person is for — not what they’re against,” suggests MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Jason Jay.

As anyone who’s argued with a colleague — or simply tried to persuade their spouse to unload the dishwasher —  knows, our worlds are rife with disagreements that go nowhere. MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Jason Jay calls these ruts “gridlock.”

Jay co-authored the upcoming book “Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World” to transform these disagreements into progress.

His book is based on conversation workshops focusing on social change, refined over the course of several years and run alongside co-author Gabriel Grant, a founder of the social-change-focused Byron Fellowship. Together, they’ve coached Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and students on the power of authentic, effective dialogue.

Here, Jay, the director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, explains how you can get yourself unstuck. “Breaking Through Gridlock” is out May 22.

Why do you use the term “gridlock” in the title, something that’s typically associated with traffic, not conversations?

Breaking through “gridlock” applies to when conversations get stuck. We offer a toolset for helping conversations get back into gear and back on track. The metaphor is really designed to capture what it feels like when we have an agenda that we’re trying to advance, whether it’s in our organization, community, family, or on the wider political stage, and we’re not getting where we want to go.

What types of “gridlock” exist in conversations?

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of getting stuck: One is that you’re avoiding a conversation, even though you want to advance an agenda, because it seems like your perspectives are too different, with too much potential conflict. The second kind is when it turns into a debate over who’s right, whose facts are right, and everyone is walking away entrenched in their own points of view. Therefore, you haven’t gotten where you want to go.

What’s usually at the root of conversational conflict?

Our book is organized around six steps. The first step is reflecting on your own internal monologue. What’s the baggage that you bring into a conversation? You could have the best talking points prepared, but if what’s going through your mind is, “I’m right, and they’re wrong,” it will bleed though. Often people think they’re being passionate and clear, but come off as arrogant and preachy.

The next step is to locate the bait. We fall into traps because there’s bait — there’s some benefit to being stuck. Why would you want to be stuck? Even when conversations get stuck, when we walk away, we get to feel right, righteous, and certain in our own perspective. We stay safe in our own unchallenged worldview. We retreat to a safe group of people who agree with us, and we can go back to preaching to the choir.

How can people break out of gridlock?

Dare to share. Get over “winning” and think about what you want out of the relationship. Focus on asking questions and understanding. If there’s a choice you don’t agree with, ask, “What inspires you to make that choice?” Understand it and acknowledge the differences. For example, my [conservative] cousin and I spend a good amount of conversation talking about where we get our news. Not in a tone of, “Your facts are wrong,” but recognizing we live in a culture where people live in bubbles, and we interact with people who only agree with us. So talk about values instead of facts; talk about personal values and perspectives, as opposed to just iterating talking points. All of that stuff creates space for difference. 

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Understand what the other person is for — not what they’re against. Say I’m an advocate for a renewable energy strategy, and I want my company to go carbon neutral.

If my CFO is pushing back because it’s too expensive, my tendency is to say, “He’s against it; I’m for it.” But what does he stand for? It’s wise allocation of company resources and economic sustainability of the company.

How do you reboot a conversation gone awry?

Two ways. An “apology” is where you say, “You know what? I have approached our conversations in the wrong way in the past. I’ve come into your office five times now with ideas I was really passionate about but didn’t think through, and I may have wasted your time. I want to explore something new, a financially exciting approach to doing renewable energy. Here’s what it would look like, and I tried my best to run the numbers.”

Or use “contrast.” Say, “I’m passionate about what we do, and you might expect me to do such-and-such, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that’s not what I’m doing today. I’m bringing you something that will save you money while moving you toward renewable energy, and I’d love to learn from your perspective, too.”

Which companies do a good job of communicating this way?

We really like Patagonia. They’re a leader in sustainability, but they don’t show up saying, “We’re the best.” It’s the opposite: They start a conversation about their footprint by saying, “Look how bad we are. These are all the ways we say we care, but we still have these challenges in our supply chains.” It’s this simultaneous ambition to make a difference with humility about where they are, and this has been very effective. They show up not as self-righteous and hot, but as, “We’re on this adventure together.”

What’s the goal of your work?

There’s a goal for the reader and a goal for our wider society. The goal for the reader is that we want to create stronger relationships and creative solutions to problems you care about, with people you didn’t think you could work with. If a lot of people do that, and if organizations do this, social and political movements — which are often characterized by people preaching to the choir or burning out due to conflict or lack of progress — will be transformed.

What was your most surprising takeaway from the book?

How dramatically people can turn around relationships. We share a story in the preface about a young woman who had tried to change her mother’s eating habits to address her obesity. The two hadn’t shared a meal in over a year because it had gotten so contentious. When she took a new approach that was more compassionate and helpful — where she ended up shopping and cooking with her mom — they had shared meals every night for two weeks when she reported back.

We also found that turning around a conversation gives people confidence to dive into bigger and higher-stakes contexts. One participant had to repair a friendship that had gotten frayed because of intense debate about climate change. After she had this experience, which included bringing her friend around on the issue, it gave her confidence to raise environmental issues with the Republican governor of her state — who now happens to be our vice president.