Wield polarization to build positive change

In TEDx talk, Jason Jay explains how to use differences, big and small, to find creative solutions.

By Dylan Walsh  |  April 5, 2018


So many disagreements go nowhere.

Why It Matters

We’ve all been in conversations that get stuck. But with a change of mindset, you can turn the tension of different goals into new ideas.

In a recent TEDx talk, Jason Jay, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan and director of its Sustainability Initiative, discussed his childhood interest in the outdoors — fascination with Indian paintbrush flowers and ridgetop hikes overlooking Denver. Years later, while attending graduate school at MIT, this interest manifested as environmental activism. He joined the sustainability student group, wrote letters, and signed petitions. “One night we even cornered the president of MIT on our bikes and said, ‘Hey, you should make sustainability more of a priority!’” Jay said in the talk. “And though we felt righteous, we weren’t getting where we wanted to go.” The conversation felt stuck.

This changed when Jay met Elsa Olivetti. The pair were discussing campus-wide sustainability efforts with university administration. Jay was leaning on leaders to do more. Olivetti, a fellow graduate student at the time, told Jay that she preferred a different approach: While he pushed others for more commitments — more action — she just expressed her desire to help. This passing comment transformed not only how Jay approached sustainability, but the way he viewed all social divides.

Breaking through gridlock — the title of Jay’s 2017 book, coauthored with Gabriel Grant — requires thinking beyond a zero-sum game. It requires making people understand that the tradeoffs we perceive aren’t always tradeoffs that we have to make. “When conversations break through, it’s because people get present to each other’s values, they embrace the tension between different goals, and they generate new ideas,” Jay said. “The hard part is getting that conversation started.”

To help spark these conversations, he offered a few tips:

Draw a contrast between what others might expect you to do and what you’re really trying to do.

Clarify the values underlying your positions, and do the same with the people you’re talking to.

Make it clear that you aren’t meeting simply to bargain over these values, but to embrace tension and find new ideas.

These steps, he noted, are of particular importance today, when partisanship is an intensely polarizing force. “The voltage feels so high that we simply avoid conversations out of fear of getting shocked,” Jay said. “But I like to think about that polarization as a kind of energy,” he continued. “I’m not saying we have to agree on everything, but we can disagree creatively, we can make that energy do work, we can break through the gridlock one conversation at a time.”

Watch the full talk below.