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Powerful Conversations in the Classroom and Beyond

New tools help students communicate better. Faculty and staff can use them as well.

At the recent Sustainability Centres Community workshop, business school centre leaders described their most challenging sustainability conversations. They recalled:

  • Speaking to an energy company CEO about transitioning to low carbon investments

  • Convincing colleagues in accounting and finance that firms have responsibility beyond maximizing shareholder value

  • Explaining the importance of sustainability to a family member

These are exchanges that often end in disagreement — or don’t even get started. The result: a relationship or issue fails to move forward.

At the workshop, Jason Jay (MIT Sloan) offered centre leaders a different way of approaching these interactions. Jay is the co-author, with Gabriel Grant, of Breaking through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World. His workshop session trained participants in specific techniques for advancing conversation.

Conversations — internal and external — drive action

Jay’s model of change is BE, DO, HAVE.

Our way of being comes from our internal conversations — our worldview and perspective.

That orientation affects what we do: our conversation with others.

Finally, these conversations ultimately drive action — the results and impact we have on the world.

Begin with your internal monologue

If a conversation is stuck, reflect on what you are thinking and feeling but not saying. Hostile or angry thoughts — expressed in body language — can torpedo a dialogue. “There’s a tremendous amount of what’s not being said that still bleeds in,” said Jay.

Sustainability centre leaders shared some of what they think in stuck conversations:

  • I’m right… You’re wrong

  • You cannot see the evidence

  • I wish she had a different behavior

  • He’s heartless

These kinds of attitudes are common, said Jay. It’s easy for humans to see our own behavior as correct. Viewing others negatively can even have a psychological payoff: we get to feel certain and even righteous about our own path.

Vision and empathy can shift thinking

Achieving a desired future provides an even greater payoff and motivation said Jay. He urged session participants to focus on their vision for the future. “If you knew where you were going, being righteous, certain and safe would feel irrelevant,” explained Jay. He has a guided meditation people can use to help shift their thinking, available as part of the free Breaking Through Gridlock curriculum resources.

It’s also important to understand the person you are working with. “Often we just think they are getting in our way,” said Jay. Consider what underlies their opposition. What are their values? Think about their goals in a way that is open and not patronizing.

Empathy is challenging

A different perspective doesn’t come automatically. During the session, centre leaders characterized their opponents’ values in often negative terms. Centre leaders said that opponents were driven by personal ambition, or the desire for control.

“You still need coaching,” said Jay. He suggested that participants think of times when they have had such feelings, as a way to better connect to opponents’ views.

Payoffs are huge

A successful conversation acknowledges the legitimacy of values on both sides — for example, environment and quality. These conversations find ways to break trade-offs: not just to compromise, but to build something better.


Free materials available from the Breaking Gridlock team include a curriculum resources package, a coaching conversation to help you integrate the material in your teaching, and an exam copy of the book

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