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

Keeping a conversation productive and finding a solution that pleases everyone is often a challenge – a problem that is ordinarily exacerbated when those involved have diametrically opposing viewpoints. 

Breaking Through Gridlock is a book that focuses on tackling these particular occasions – both in personal and professional arenas – providing tools to help you keep conversations on track and create change that works for everyone. We spoke to co-author Jason Jay, a Senior Lecturer at MIT and member of our Sustainability Council, to find out more about how the book came about.

 

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We’ve all been in that conversation – you’re arguing your corner, they’re arguing theirs, and you’re not getting anywhere. That’s what Jason Jay and his co-author Gabriel Grant describe as conversational gridlock. “It’s like when you have cars that are all trying to go the direction that they want to go. They drive straight into the intersection and honk their horns, and don’t back off enough from their own righteousness and certainty to create space for a useful traffic of ideas.”

More often than not we assume that the way to solve these conversations is to convince the other person around to our way of thinking – however sometimes this isn’t always possible and gets us no-where. What if instead of settling for a compromise, or agreeing to disagree, you could find innovative solutions that worked for all parties?

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It’s this quest for innovative solutions that inspired Jay and Grant to write ‘Breaking Through Gridlock’. Six years ago the two were discussing their work as advocates for sustainability and reflected on occasions where they had failed to engage stakeholders and colleagues who didn’t share the same passion for the subject.

The pair then discovered that when talking to fellow advocates of responsible business, many of the conversation pitfalls had a similar pattern of reactions. “This is what we call the bait and the trap,” Jay explains, “You get stuck in the pitfall trap when you go in for the bait. The bait is how psychologically rewarding it is to feel right and to have the other person be wrong. To be certain about your own perspective and to get to feel that certainty in what is really an uncertain and messy world.”

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From these realisations, they developed a structured reflection process that could be used in workshops to help understand where conversations intended to engage people had gone astray, or where people were trying to avoid the hard topics. After running through this methodology with more than 2000 people, patterns began to emerge to create a repeatable and reliable process that worked. “The key is to go in reflectively, to notice your own background conversation and internal monologue and the effect that it’s having on the conversation – the things that you’re thinking and feeling but not saying,” says Jay.

The book is a culmination of these workshops – featuring stories, analyses and exercises that create a tool to “empower leaders to take action and engage people to have impact” while maintaining the relationships between people. “The book is really written for situations where you have two objectives,” adds Jay, “You have a change goal where you’re trying to mobilise someone on organisational or social change, but you also have a goal to preserve or strengthen the relationship, and the relationship matters because they’re a colleague, a relative, a customer, or an investor. And you want to achieve both of these at the same time.”

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Since starting the book, Jay notes that the wider landscape in which it’s been written has shifted. Most notably, unexpected political and economic changes – from Trump to Brexit – have instigated polarising viewpoints. “And what happens in that context is that there’s not a subset of people who are advocates or activists – everybody is activated.” For Jay though, this polarisation is not necessarily a bad thing. He describes having two different perspectives as “a special kind of tension that holds energy for creativity and change. It’s the disagreement that creates the energy for creativity. That’s what spurs you to come up with new and more creative product designs, supply chains and business models that actually solve the problem, as opposed to just encouraging people to accept a compromise or a trade-off for what they care about.”

Given the current climate, Breaking Through Gridlock could not be more timely. Yet the lessons it teaches are timeless and applicable to a wide variety of situations – from the business proposal that didn’t go the way you’d planned, to the family discussion that escalated into an argument. So, next time you’re tempted to say “let’s just agree to disagree”, remember that’s just the beginning of a new conversation and the first step towards a creative solution.

You can order Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarised World now.

Sophie Corfan